The History of Signage: Evolution from Cave Paintings to LED Displays

Signs have been used throughout human history to communicate messages and information visually.

Signage has evolved tremendously over thousands of years. From simplistic symbols painted on cave walls in ancient times to sophisticated computerized displays used in today’s world, the development of signage reflects major advancements in human civilization and technology.

Signs play a fundamental role in identifying locations, conveying information, promoting brands, and shaping the visual landscape of cities and cultures across the world.

This article will trace the fascinating evolution of signs through different eras of history up to the diverse array of signage options available today.

Earliest Signs (18,000 BC)

The earliest signs created by humans first appeared around 18,000 BC in the form of cave paintings and simplistic petroglyphs etched into stones and cave walls. These rudimentary symbols and paintings were used to communicate basic messages about the human experience and record information about animals, hunting, and the environment.

Archaeologists have discovered cave paintings dating back over 30,000 years in places like the Chauvet Cave in France, El Castillo in Spain, and Maros in Sulawesi, Indonesia. These paintings typically depicted animals, hunting scenes, and handprints using red and black pigments made from minerals like iron oxide, charcoal, and manganese. The artists used crude brushes fashioned from plant materials and their hands to create simple but surprisingly advanced paintings on cave walls and ceilings.

In addition to cave paintings, prehistoric signs also included petroglyphs, which were designs carved into stone. These engravings of people, animals, and symbols provided a means to record information and possibly used in rituals or magic. They demonstrate how early humans realized they could use visual symbols and images painted or carved into stone to communicate ideas. These were humanity’s earliest signs and the genesis of written language.

Signs in Ancient Civilizations

Ancient civilizations used signage in various ways to communicate information and identify places. The ancient Egyptians developed a writing system using hieroglyphics, which incorporated logographic, syllabic, and alphabetic elements . Egyptian hieroglyphic signs were very detailed and elaborate, using multiple colors and imagery. Hieroglyphic signs often resembled people, animals, body parts, or objects from the natural world .

In ancient Rome, signs were carved into stone or molded from terracotta to label shops, taverns, and public spaces. The Romans also used signs to mark distances along roads. The ancient Greeks advanced signmaking by incorporating their architectural and sculptural skills. Signs in ancient Greek cities were designed with precision to identify businesses and provide public information.

Signs in the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages from the 5th to 15th century, signs became more prominent in Europe. Shop signs emerged as businesses wanted to identify their stores and inns. These medieval signboards were mounted outside on hinges to swing in the wind. They often featured symbolic images or coats of arms to identify services like a shoe for a cobbler or tools for a blacksmith. Signboards provided a way for most of the population who could not read to identify businesses.

Heraldic signage also became popular during this time period among nobility and knights. Coats of arms with symbolic images identified families and clans. These heraldic symbols were displayed on shields, banners, and clothing. Signs adopted colors and images from heraldry like lions, eagles, crowns and more. This type of medieval signage helped identify events, rulers, and knights during the Middle Ages.

Signboards evolved to become quite elaborate in the Late Middle Ages. They incorporated bright colors and creative designs using paints like linseed oil, verdigris, and saffron. Bold fonts, ornamental borders, and hanging signs became commonplace. Signs served both a practical purpose for identification as well as decorative art.

Signage in the Renaissance

During the Renaissance era from the 14th to 17th century, there was a proliferation of signboards and shop signs across Europe. With an increase in commerce and trade, merchants and craftsmen utilized signs to identify their premises. These signs featured intricate designs and bright colors intended to attract attention and convey the nature of the business.

Signboards displayed symbols or illustrations related to the trade being advertised. A barber may use poles, a bookseller illustrated books, a blacksmith a horseshoe, and an inn displayed signs with food and drink. Signs were crafted from materials like wood, stone, or metal.

Enameled signs painted on metal became popular during this time. The technique involved applying colored glass powder to metal and fusing it to create a glossy, hardened surface. This produced vibrant and durable signs that maintained their sheen. Enamel signage was more expensive but provided a luxurious effect.

Signs during the Renaissance became more ornate as designs incorporated sculptures, coats of arms, and creative arrangements of text and images. They reflected the artistic styles of the time. Signage took on an important role as businesses competed to attract customers with the most appealing signs on a crowded street.

Impact of the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries brought about dramatic changes in manufacturing and production that transformed signmaking. The introduction of mechanized manufacturing enabled the mass production of signs on an unprecedented scale. Metal casting and porcelain firing allowed durable and intricate signs to be made rapidly and affordably.

Porcelain enamel signs became popular during this period. The technique bonded colored powdered glass onto iron or steel sheets at high temperatures to create a smooth, durable surface that could display bright signage. Porcelain signs were resistant to weathering and abrasion, ideal for exterior store signage and advertising. Brand logos and insignia were added to create brand signage and early commercial branding.

The proliferation of consumer goods and department stores created a high demand for retail shop signage in cities. Manufacturers could produce large quantities of standardized signs to meet this demand. As cities expanded, there was greater need for large outdoor signs that were visible at a distance. New sign materials like stamped metal and painted wood enabled larger and bolder store signage.

Overall, the Industrial Revolution transformed signmaking from small-scale workshops to mass production. This enabled the widespread use of signage for identification, advertising, and branding across urban environments.

20th Century Developments

The 20th century brought about many innovations that transformed signage. In the early 1900s, neon lighting was introduced, allowing for glowing signs made using glass tubes filled with neon or other gases. Neon signage became hugely popular starting in the 1920s for shop signs, advertising, and architecture. Some notable neon signs created then include the Packard sign in Los Angeles (1915) and the LA Western Motel sign (1938).

The development of plastics in the mid-1900s also expanded the possibilities for sign design. Plastics allowed for molded dimensional lettering and creative shapes for signs. Plastics were cheap, durable, and could be made in vibrant colors. Major corporations began using plastic signage lit with neon or bulbs for their stores.

Signage became increasingly playful and experimental in the 1960s and 70s. Sign painters pushed creative boundaries with hand-painted signs featuring ornate scripts, illustrations, and psychedelic designs. The Las Vegas strip adopted iconic neon marquees and signage. Plastic signs also adopted groovy styles seen in Googie architecture.

In the 1960s, light emitting diode (LED) technology emerged as an alternative to neon lighting. LEDs were adopted for signs starting in the 1970s and 80s as they became more visible and affordable. Digital signs also appeared, allowing for electronically controlled message displays. By the late 1900s, signs had evolved dramatically thanks to 20th century lighting and material innovations.

Signage Today

Signage today focuses on maximizing visibility, legibility, and aesthetics. Popular modern sign types include:

Channel letter signs – These dimensional letter signs are constructed of metal or plastic and affixed directly to the building facade. Channel letters may be illuminated or backlit for enhanced visibility.

Monument signs – Monument signs are perfect for businesses and building complexes. These signs have a low profile and usually sit on or close to the ground. 

Lightboxes – Lightboxes feature translucent panels that are backlit to create an eye-catching display. They allow for interchangeable graphics making them very versatile.

Dimensional signs – Dimensional signs incorporate advanced materials and fabrication techniques to create signage with unique shapes and depths. They attract attention through their sculptural qualities.

Digital signs – Digital signs use LED, LCD or other display technologies to electronically change messages and imagery. They enable dynamic and targeted messaging capabilities.

Advancements in sign materials such as composites, LEDs and digital printing allow sign makers to push creative boundaries. The popularity of signage lighting continues to grow for its dramatic visual impact. Overall the industry strives to balance aesthetics, legibility, durability and functionality in sign designs.


The progression of signs from the earliest cave paintings to today’s computerized displays showcases the evolution of human communication. For tens of thousands of years, humans have used signs and symbols to convey vital information and messages. From simple painted images in caves to intricate shop signboards to electrified neon extravaganzas, signs have allowed us to identify, direct, inform, advertise, warn, and express ourselves visually.

Signage continues to be indispensable for communication and identification in the modern world. Signs help us navigate, find businesses, advertise products and services, promote brands, convey ideas, and regulate behavior. The ongoing innovation in sign materials, production methods, and technologies has opened up endless possibilities for signmakers and designers. While styles and technologies have changed dramatically over time, the basic human need for effective visual communication through signs endures.

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