Signs of Discord

By Ann Christoph
By Ann Christoph

“If we all speak softly, everyone can be heard.”  Besides being good advice for democracy and human relations in general, this phrase from former mayor Dan Kenney was specifically applied to signs, the issue he focused on during his terms on the city council, 1982-1990.

Kenney saw that without controls, competitive sign making had the potential to create great visual discord.   Instead of luring more customers, large, loud signs would ultimately be counterproductive to the individual businesses and damaging to the image of town as a whole.

Kenney sought to identify key components of unacceptable signs, ones that detracted from Laguna’s village character.  Comparing favorite buildings and their signs to those that we see as not in keeping with Laguna’s small town village feel, the council defined key components —the size of signs and lettering, design appropriateness and the potential for internal lighting to be glaring and harsh. A revised ordinance provided for discretionary review of signs, limited sizes, and prohibited internal lighting. That meant that the worst offenders had to go—those rectangular fluorescent-lighted shadow boxes with changeable lettering stuck on, glowing plastic letters and neon.  There was an amortization period, and eventually those signs were phased out.

A new era of sign-making was underway, led by Roman Yanez who for more than 30 years made many of the sandblasted wood signs still in place throughout the town. He did so many signs of this type that his work gave a unifying character to commercial areas.  When he died in 2005, this tradition came to a close. Few signs of this type have been installed since.  Recently there have been many other design approaches, some innovative and attractive, but many that stand out rather than fitting in.

The challenge sign makers have taken on is to create almost internally lighted signs without the city ruling them as prohibited signs. So we have Ruby’s, that really wanted a neon sign, but managed to get faux neon approved, and a whole series of signs with silhouetted letters. Lights behind the letters have been ruled as not “internal.” Now we have the next generation of silhouetted signs where the sign is a dark rectangle and light comes out where the letters are. The effect is very close to an internally lighted sign. While in some cases silhouette signs can be beautiful and appropriate to their buildings, the silhouette exception may have started us down a slippery slope.

Time to look at the results and reevaluate.  Next time you’re at the Aliso Creek Plaza—the Albertson’s shopping center, take a look. Originally the center had a sign program, a plan so that the businesses’ signs would be harmonious with each other. Now there seems to be a discordant mix, and little “village character” in evidence. There are the big plastic letters of CVS and Albertsons, that look like all the signs on all the stores region-wide.  The only difference here is the spotlights on them instead of the glowing internal lights.  Then there are the wood signs of the remaining long-term businesses, the silhouette signs of newer ones, and the newest dark rectangle glowing letter sign. Not harmonious with each other or with the “craftsman style” remodel recently completed at the center.

The signing of this center is a microcosm of the dilemmas we are facing city-wide as we update and “encourage creative, artistic and well-designed signs that contribute to the visual environment of Laguna Beach, express local character and develop a distinctive image.” (Laguna Beach sign ordinance)

Fortunately for Laguna, our sign ordinance has helped to add understated beauty to our commercial areas.  By contrast, Corona del Mar is a maze of diverse and glaring signs, all competing with each other and adding a sense of discord to the visual environment.

When the Montage was being designed, the owner’s representative was asked about the signing they were planning.  “We would prefer no signing,” he said to everyone’s surprise. “We are an exclusive resort, we want to be distinguished by our quality. We want a low-key image from the street. We know we will need some sign, but it will be small and discrete.”  Their signing is just that.

Rancho Santa Fe’s signing is small, hand-lettered signs painted on the stucco of the buildings. Scripps College is similar.  The City has followed this lead in the recent hand-painted signs of City Hall.

Signing speaks for us as a community.  Speaking softly gives the gentle feeling of a caring, welcoming village, just what we want to say.


Landscape architect Ann Christoph is a former City Council member.


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