Learning from Las Vegas and Reno: Characteristics of Good Gateway Signs

In my earlier discussion of urban landmarks, I mentioned two gateway signs that are nationally and internationally famous – the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada” sign and Reno’s “The Biggest Little City in the World” sign. They not only inform visitors that they have arrived but help define Las Vegas and Reno for the outside world.


The “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada” Sign

Reno's "The Biggest Little City in the World" Sign

Reno’s “The Biggest Little City in the World” Sign

The Las Vegas and Reno signs embody the flashy, energetic, nocturnal character of their communities and would be jarring in many other places. However, these signs can serve as models for regions, cities, towns, and downtowns that have far different personalities. They exemplify many characteristics of good gateway signs, including:

  1. Prominence: Gateway signs should be located on a main entry point where possible and should be large enough to be clearly visible to pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers. The proper height depends on the traveler’s likely speed and distance from the sign. Since travelers tend to focus on objects at eye level, a tall sign is better when speeds are high and the sign is far away (for example, a downtown sign located along a flat stretch of highway). A particularly prominent type of sign is an arched sign over a principal commercial street such as those in Reno and Bakersfield, Encinitas, Fairfield, Pleasanton, Redwood City, and Santa Monica, California. The Las Vegas sign is also located in a prominent location – the median at the southern entrance of the Las Vegas Strip and next to McCarran International Airport.
  2. Distinctiveness: Marketing consultant Roy H. Williams argues that most business signs are forgettable because they attempt to be understated, elegant, and fit into their surroundings. He uses the iconic Hollywood sign as an example of a sign that is dramatic, different from its surroundings and other signs, and contains a “wrong” element (i.e., the text of the Hollywood sign is not level). The Las Vegas and Reno signs are certainly dramatic – they use flashing lights, neon, and, in the case of the Reno sign, large lettering. The Las Vegas and Reno signs are both located within the street right of way, so they do not need to compete with surrounding signs. The “wrong” element in the Las Vegas sign is that the sign appears to be floating at night because the base is not lit.
  3. Appropriateness: Graphic designer Jacob Cass cites the playful Toys R Us logo as an example of a logo that is appropriate for one type of brand that may not be appropriate for another type of brand. Similarly, the Las Vegas and Reno signs suit their respective communities, but would not be appropriate for entrances to Beverly Hills or San Francisco’s Chinatown, which are places with their own iconic gateways.
  4. Concise, yet ambiguous text: Las Vegas’ and Reno’s signs are famous around the world for many reasons, but perhaps the most important reason is that the text communicates a big message in a few words and leaves the specific interpretation up to the reader. These signs hint that these cities offer an unlimited variety of experiences, which provides appeal for a variety of visitors and residents.
  5. Simple design: Simple may not appear to be the most appropriate word for the design of the Las Vegas and Reno signs since both employ an array of flashing lights. Yet the overall design of the signs uses simple geometric shapes and imagery (a star appears in both signs). This simplicity makes them easy to recognize and remember.
  6. Legibility: The sign must have a simple lettering style with an emphasis on the most important words (e.g., the place’s name) and contrast between the colors of the lettering and background. The three biggest words in the Las Vegas sign are “Welcome”, “Fabulous”, and “Las Vegas” because they are the most important words. The red color of “Welcome” and “Las Vegas” stands out from the white background, particularly at night. Similarly, the word “Reno” is much larger than the rest of the text and is red against a white background during the day.
  7. Timelessness: A gateway sign should represent a certain place without being constrained by a certain period of time. The design of the Las Vegas sign originated in 1959 and has aged gracefully. The Reno sign has been replaced several times since the arch’s initial installation in 1926, but has included the “The Biggest Little City in the World” slogan for most of that time. The current design dates to 1987.
  8. Durability: The Las Vegas and Reno signs are well built and well maintained. Since a gateway sign is a reflection of the community, the materials and construction should possess a high quality and be able to hold up over time, particularly in light of potential weather conditions. The sign should be a source of pride and not deteriorate into an eyesore.

A memorable gateway sign is only one element in a community’s marketing strategy, but a design that incorporates these characteristics can have significant benefits. Successful gateway signs such as the Las Vegas and Reno signs establish and solidify a community’s identity, draw new visitors and residents, and bring in money into the local economy.

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