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Updated: Jun 22, 2022

A quick guide for those looking to set up shop in downtown Madison or redo their existing signs!

The city of Madison does have a sign ordinance in place, but there's still plenty of room for creativity and individuality within the parameters of the ordinance. Need to be convinced? Just take a look around Madison! A downtown stroll will confirm that the signage is far from boring! From the colorful toys of McWhiggin's Wonder Emporium to the historic piece of lumber used for the Trolley Barn sign, downtown is filled with signs that inform shoppers as well as delight the eye.

The downtown sign ordinance, in place since 1982, is intended to protect property values, create a more attractive marketplace, and preserve the dignity and architectural significance of the district. For those planning a new sign, the best place to start is the city of Madison’s Department of Planning, Preservation, and Design. Historic Preservationist Brooke Peach can be reached at 812-274-0253 or

So when should you contact the city? “I would say, honestly, the earlier, the better,” said Ms. Peach. “We can work with a person to make sure that when they’re meeting with the sign company, all the bases are covered.” The ordinance covers all types of signs, including:

  • Flat signs

  • Dimensional surface signs

  • Projecting signs

  • Window signs

  • Awning signs

  • Banners and flags

  • Temporary signs

Some types of signs are just not allowed. These include roof signs, billboards, signs that advertise businesses at other locations, and flashing signs. Some aspects of signage that are regulated:

  • Safety

  • Dimensions

  • Color and materials

  • Lighting

  • Number of signs

Signs made of historically appropriate materials – such as wood, glass, copper, or bronze letters -- blend well with the historic district, says Ms. Peach. Colors themselves are not regulated, but the guidelines that accompany the ordinance suggest that “Signs should have no more than two or three colors; colors should be coordinated with overall building colors." Creativity is welcomed. Traditionally, storefronts were identified with symbols of the trade or products available inside. An example of this is the familiar barber pole.

When Kathy Roy, owner of Cuckoos Roost at 133 E. Main St., started to think about opening a store of handmade American crafts, she knew she wanted her sign to reflect what customers would find inside. She started with an original idea. “I went with something very European – a metal sign that shows what the business does.”

But before she proceeded, she did her homework.

“It was simple. I just walked into City Hall and asked who I need to talk to,” said Ms. Roy. She was directed to Brooke Peach. Ms. Peach said she needed to know the dimensions of her storefront and the dimensions of her window if she wanted to have a window sign. She would need a picture of her façade and a drawing of the sign itself and its dimensions. Kathy figured out the allowable dimensions from the sign ordinance, which is on the city’s website. There was a form to fill out to apply for a “Certificate of Appropriateness.”

Ms. Roy herself drew and designed the sign. It features a metal cuckoo on the bracket. (Why? Because “I was at home going cuckoo during the pandemic.”) Jerry Wallin, a master metalsmith and woodcrafter from Vevay, constructed the metal portion for her. Madison artist and sign painter Kevin Carlson made the wooden sign with the store’s name and the descriptive phrase “Contemporary American Crafts.” Cuckoos Roost also makes use of window lettering, which is permitted in addition to the hanging sign.

In general, businesses are allowed one flat, dimensional, or projecting sign per building façade. But window signs, freestanding signs such as sandwich boards, and awning signs are permitted in addition. When someone submits all the paperwork for a new sign, and it meets all the city requirements, the Historic Preservationist has the authority to approve it immediately. That is exactly what happened with the Cuckoos Roost proposal.

If there are details that can’t be worked out between the applicant and the Historic Preservationist, the request for a Certificate of Appropriateness goes before the Historic District Board of Review, an arm of the city government. In almost all cases, the business owner who has worked with the city from the beginning gets approval. The key is getting good information about the sign ordinance from the beginning.

In addition to contacting the city, business owners are encouraged to discuss their plans with Austin Sims, Executive Director of the Madison Main Street Program. She frequently talks with business owners about the message they want their sign to convey. She asks business owners if they have registered their business name, an important step before making that sign. She can also recommend local sign companies.


We can’t wait to see you downtown!

Written by

Laura Hodges

Madison Main Street Program

Secretary & Board Member


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