The first ICA show I attended was in 1996 in San Antonio, TX. I have only missed one since dueto a health issue. In those years, I have seen a transformation of the importance the industry places on the on-premises sign. I like to think that I have contributed to that transformation, in some small way, but I believe with the advent of the express car wash and growing competition, signs as part of branding have received better attention than in generations past.

The site is off the main road and access is set back
a considerable distance. The words “Auto Spa”
are clearly readable exactly where they need to be in order
to be effective in advancing the capture rate from the
nearest major source of traffic.

In times past, the sign was often the last consideration in developing a wash, and the budget was anything left over. Competition has forced many to rethink this element of the wash site and its value.

This brings us to the topic at hand: The science of signs.


Signs are mostly considered an art form. Many owners fail to realize, as they design their signs, that there is a more important consideration and scrutiny, which sign designs must go through as they are developed for a specific site.

Years ago, as I worked on the signage for a new U.S. post office, I received an 80-page document which was created to make sure the brand of the post office was communicated and that each location was branded properly. This document took into consideration each kind of situation in which a sign would be presented and allowed for local sign regulations to impact the shape, sizes, and materials in which the sign would be rendered without changing the brand presented to the public.

Later, I served on a national committee, with two of the original Eisenhower Highway traffic safety engineers, Dick Schwab and Travis Brooks. Listening to these men describe the challenge of coming up with an effective multi-state, multi-environment sign communication system was very interesting.

Ultimately, their department realized that highway safety depended on visual considerations and the physics of driving. They coined a new phrase: the human factors.

The visual abilities of drivers, response times, decision making times, and the like had to be considered in the development of an effective communication system for the motoring public.

Questions such as, “How long does it take a driver to react to a sign?” or “How many feet per second is a car moving at specific miles per hour?” and “How large does the copy of a sign need to be in order to be seen in enough time to get a vehicle safely off an exit ramp?”

In 1955, that department worked on these issues and came up with a scientific document consisting of 149 pages. Today that document is maintained by the Transportation Research Board and clocks in at 1,149 pages. It is commonly known as the MUTCD or Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices.

This new emphasis on proper sign design and how drivers receive information is paramount in determining if our on-premises signs are as competitive and effective as we need them to be in the environment the car wash industry currently finds itself.


While we are not specifically attempting to move traffic in a public thoroughfare, we are attempting to do something similar to the interstate system. We are attempting to get cars to exit the public thoroughfare and enter our businesses. We call the result of this effort, capture rate.

One of the ways to increase car wash tunnel counts is to increase traffic rates at specific locations under specific conditions. We need to create, in marketing terms, a point of distribution. We literally have a need to reach into the field of vision of the consumer, tap into his brain, interrupt his concentration, and force him to decide what to do about the presence of our sign.

Signs are often designed with a particular logo or gimmick, with bright colors and other devices that are thought to communicate with the motorist. These designs are often grand in scope and can only be considered an art form. Sign art does not necessarily communicate the way a sign must in order to be effective.

Stopping at this point in the design phase of signage — and not considering the science of signs — is, in a sense, sign-design malpractice. The investment in a sign is considerable and not taking the extra step of scientific review is unthinkable. The very little that science might add to the cost of the sign would be negligible compared to the cost of an ineffective design. Ignoring this step could be extremely expensive in terms of lost capture rate.

Consider this example: A car wash is located on a multi-directional thoroughfare carrying 40,000 cars per day. If it has a capture rate of .0071 at that specific location, that site would bring in 284 cars per day. If the capture rate at the same site were raised to .01, a mere .0029 points, the car count would change to 400 cars per day!

Annualizing the difference would mean a potential increase of over 40,000 cars simply by raising the effectiveness of site signage through science.

The words “Auto Spa” appear in large type to be read
at the key locations necessary to drive traffic and to make
sure the signs would be readable at those distant points,
seen in the photo on page 18.


The science of signs allows known data about drivers’ habits and reactions to be applied to a specific site for a competitive advantage. There are of course many considerations, including access — and all are to be taken into account in creating the carefully crafted sign.

Briefly, two key considerations must be reviewed to make this application of science effective:

1. The Environment of the Site

Today, most car washes are in heavily trafficked areas. Many are located near prime shopping outlets and traffic is dense all around the business. The sign must be conspicuous and must jump out from the rest. This is where good color, electronic message centers, and appropriate location of the sign relative to the driver are critical.

2. How the Driver Sees and Responds to the Sign

Specific calculations may be done as to how long the driver has to see the sign before reaching the business in order to read the sign, comprehend its message, make a decision about the message, and set in motion the series of physical processes necessary to enter the business — things like braking, switching on turn signals, changing lanes, yielding to other traffic, and entering the business safely.

The monument sign and the building signs cooperate to make
sure that the closer surface streets are covered as well as
the distance. This concept is known as sign-centric advertising.

If the sign is not readable at the appropriate distance to allow for the driver to safely engage in these processes then the car will miss the business entrance and you will have a lower capture rate. The sign must have clear, readable copy that can be read at the particular spot in the road necessary for a safe entry into the wash drive. The term for this is minimum required legibility distance or MRLD.

Finally, considering the capture rates and the car counts at stake, anytime is a good time to review your sign program especially if you feel the site may be underperforming. A sign cannot fix everything, but I have heard for many years now that volume cures everything. If that is the case, a review of that sign may well help with that volume!

Perry Powell is a commercial sign consultant and is available to review any sign program even when it involves another sign company. He may be reached at or 817-307-6484.