From prehistoric cave paintings, when people first used symbols to communicate, signs played an essential role in commerce. While the significance of signs in ancient society is sometimes overlooked, they played a crucial role in human communication throughout history.

It would help to trace signage history to appreciate how important it has become to the health of the contemporary economy. What did the first tools for making signs look like, and how were they constructed? What were the first signs made of, and how did they change through time?

To address these concerns and provide the history of signs, the following is a guide on how it has evolved through the ages.

The beginnings of signage

Before writing and permanent records were developed, humans had used proto-signal instruments and gadgets for thousands of years. Experts call it “symbolic advertising,” but it was just crude scribbling or drawing by tribesmen to let others know they had a particular commodity to trade or sell.

Increases in the size of the tribal economies led to a rise in the frequency with which merchants and artisans promoted their wares. Towns populated by merchants and trade fairs sprang up so that people from different communities could meet and do business. As commercial activity increased, merchants often established permanent locations and found it necessary to display some signs advertising their wares. At the ancient Middle Eastern city of Ur, where the first dependable advertising emblem was discovered, the earliest such symbol dates back to 3000 BC.

Great strides were made in developing different types of signs from 3000 B.C. to 500 A.D. The Egyptians, Romans, and Greek city-states used them extensively. These signs were sometimes the only form of public announcement used by merchants and artisans; therefore, they were built of basic materials like wood, brick, or stone and had straightforward layouts. Several signs for businesses and workshops have been found in virtually mint condition in the remains of Pompeii and neighboring towns.


Europe fell into the Dark Ages with the collapse of the Roman Empire, a time of extensive loss of cultural artifacts, a drop in commerce and a general economic downturn. During this period, signage design was sparse, mostly pictorial symbols and rough drawings. The new trade voyages after the eleventh and twelfth centuries ushered in an economic and cultural renewal era. The signs of wealthy shopkeepers, famous artisans and illustrious factories typically contained intricate patterns and symbols. In addition to pricey materials, most had intricate carvings, vivid colors, and glittering gold. The best artisans and workshops had a distinctive emblem that served as a quick and easy way for buyers to remember who they were dealing with (some experts may refer to it as an early logo).

Before the advent of indoor media, all advertisements were displayed in the open air, often to indicate where or what might be purchased. Along with it, for example, murano glass, made by renowned craftsmen and workshops, was popularized largely by word of mouth.

Starting in the 17th century, in England, it was legal for any business to display a sign board for its wares or services. Each trade had its unique emblem, but they were all immediately identifiable: a Bible for a bookshop, a key for a locksmith, a shoe for a cobbler, and a mortar and pestle for a chemist. Wood, wrought iron, other metals, ceramics, and fabrics were all used to create these signs. There was a lot of creativity on display; the drawings were intricate, the colors were bright, and some of the stories were hilarious. Nonetheless, illiteracy was widespread even in important towns like London and Liverpool; therefore, names and letters were seldom utilized.

The 18th century and the beginnings of sign regulation


Outdoor signage in the early 1700s was the heaviest and most ornate ever. Several weighed up to a hundred pounds and hung precariously over the roads below. Charles II ordered that no external sign may be placed over roadways or pedestrian crossings after a string of unfortunate incidents. The dimensions, mass, and projection of such signs were also subject to other European rules. While restrictive, this period was crucial to the eventual evolution of modern outdoor signage.

Gas and Electric Signs (1900–1930)

The introduction of petrol and electric power revolutionized nighttime public events and outdoor advertising. Because of this, more people could safely stroll and spend time outdoors at night, and stores could display their wares around the clock. The results are the fast development of capitalism and the proliferation of ever-brighter billboards.

In 1910, a Frenchman came up with the idea for a gas-powered neon sign, and by 1915, it had been installed in Los Angeles. Invented in Germany in the 1890s, porcelain signs (also known as enamel signs) quickly gained popularity in the early 20th century as a means of advertising at retail establishments throughout the United States. In the 1930s, commercial printing and mass manufacturing were the norms, reflected in the graphic signs produced using silkscreen and lithographic printing.

Materials: Plastic, Vinyl, and Wide-Format Printing (1940–1990)

Wide-Format Printing

Following World War II, there was a need for inexpensive and quick-to-produce signs for mass distribution. These forerunners of today’s commonplace watertight banners and inflatable signs were first used in the 1960s. In 1958, the first applications of the lightweight and long-lasting adhesive vinyl film were introduced.

In the 1980s, the first digital vinyl-cutting machines were on the market, making it possible to quickly and precisely cut intricate logos and text that could be put directly into walls and windows. Acrylic signs, banners, flags, and A-Frame signage were lit with neon and fluorescent bulbs.

Recent signage technology

During the last two decades, plastics have replaced metal and glass for use in more than 95% of outdoor signs. Cutting-edge patterns may now be printed in full color on any surface, thanks to advances in printing technology. Composite materials (reinforced plastics, fiber-polymers), new plastics (polyurethane, polyethylene, PVC), and a wide range of metals, ceramics, and textiles are all used to create signs.

Designers now have access to UV-resistant paints and cutting-edge laminated printing technology, allowing them to make signs that can endure harsh weather and prolong the life of outdoor advertising pieces. Because of these modern advancements, the colors will never fade and look great for decades with no special care. While 3D printing is in its infancy, technology is anticipated to affect hoarding advertising significantly. Once prohibitively costly and labor-intensive to produce, 3D silhouettes, sophisticated outdoor signs, and sculptures are now more accessible to a smaller but growing clientele.

Today’s signage industry

Throughout history, people have used signs as indicators of a thriving economy. Every company, from the first bow-makers in Ancient Egypt to the latest Silicon Valley start-up, has required some method of getting the word out about their wares. There are now more than 3,000 sign firms in the U.S. alone, bringing in an estimated $2 billion yearly income for the signage sector.

This number is projected to grow due to the industry-changing technological developments and as more and more company owners realize the value of a strong outside presence. Now digital signage is at the forefront of most advertising strategies with interactive signage and video walls which are growing in popularity.

Digital signage

digital signage

Digital signage is a centralized system that serves as a content streaming platform for displaying digital material on one or more screens. It can display various information, including live weather, news, live streams, menus, flights, calendars and advertisements.

Several businesses utilize digital signs, but the most visible and eye-catching are retail stores and quick-service restaurants, who use them for in-store displays or to advertise menus, special discounts and stock. Hotels, senior care communities, stadiums, arenas, conference centers, schools, colleges, universities, town councils, government, healthcare facilities, G.P.s, and businesses use digital signage processes to provide employees communications messages, info for guests, locals, and visitors, or a branded T.V. channel.

Digital signage has grown in popularity because it engages audiences more effectively than static signage. Moving pictures, aesthetically appealing graphics, and the capability to immediately update the content make it more engaging. When delivered digitally, an organization’s signs screens appear exciting, up-to-date, and relevant.


While it is hard to predict the future, emerging technologies have the potential to improve the signs used in businesses today significantly. Holographic signage is already in use at events like trade exhibitions and promotions. There will certainly be a myriad of uses for holograms as technology advances. Sensor technologies and portable gadgets may alter how people interact with signage, providing additional information about a product or service to buyers.

While printed signs are still widely used for advertising, directing traffic, and other purposes, digital business signage is rapidly changing these industries and many others. Improve your business’s marketing strategy with the right digital signage software like the LOOK DS service to start seeing your ROI grow.