Seattle’s sign code:
Loopholes aplenty for advertisers

by editor on June 24, 2011

A city permit for a sign half this size was to identify 'Black Bottle' tavern, but the restaurant and KNL advertising firm instead hung this Widmer banner. The city had it taken down.

This article is excerpted from Crosscut, Seattle’s independent political and news website. Originally published June 15, 2011.

The city is plastered with billboard-like “wallscapes” that break the law or stretch it in creative ways. After last year’s Russell Investments skyscraper-sign controversy, the broader ordinance is coming under review.

By Eric Scigliano

For a few weeks last fall, the biggest political dustup in town was over a sign — the 10-foot-tall illuminated logo that Russell Investments wanted to hang atop its new downtown tower. To get Russell to move from Tacoma, Mayor Nickels’ administration and City Council President Richard Conlin had offered to change the city’s sign code, which doesn’t allow signs more than 65 feet above ground, and let Russell brand its piece of the city skyline.

But design, architecture, and good-government types turned out in force, complaining that Russell’s logo would also deface that skyline and open the door to every other big, vain office-tower tenant that wanted to stake a claim. And, because a sky-scraping logo invisible from the street would be all about branding, it would subvert the basic principle of Seattle’s sign code: that signs are for helping people find businesses and find out what’s available inside. They’re not a general advertising medium.

This Montana tourism ad, one of the largest signs in Seattle, qualified as an 'on-premise' sign after Clear Channel offered to include a tag for the Amcan travel agency, which has an office inside the building.

The Cyclops Cafe sells Stella Artois beer, qualifying this banner as an on-premise sign, even though such signs are meant to help people locate businesses.

The supermarket around the corner does sell Stella, though this alley sign bears little visual connection to the store.

This Tabasco sign lures drivers along adjacent I-5, even though the store inside this building doesn't sell the hot sauce and its owners didn't recognize the brand name.

Is this an on-premise sign? After ad company Icon was ordered to remove this wallscape from its own building, it began offering Starbucks drink vouchers from its third-floor office.

All that was too much for the Seattle Design Commission, which recommended denying Russell’s request, and for the City Council, which decided to table the proposal and take a wider look at the city’s sign code. When councilmembers eventually do that, they’ll see that the threat of a few tower-topping corporate logos is the least sign of trouble in this town. Down at street level, they’ll find what even one local outdoor-advertising operator calls “the Wild West”: a free-for-all of ever bigger and bolder advertising signs, plastering buildings from chic Belltown to gritty SoDo.
(continued at

Eric Scigliano is a Seattle-based writer whose books include Puget Sound, Love, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant), Michelangelo’s Mountain, and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics. He can be reached in care of

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: