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Lost in Paradise

Inadequate signage detracts from Hilton Head experience.

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I recently enjoyed a wonderful vacation with my family in Hilton Head Island, SC. They weather was perfect; the beaches were clean and inviting; the people were friendly; and every restaurant excursion yielded a memorable meal.

However, one significant problem lingered throughout the entire trip: we kept getting lost, which limited the frequency of trips off the resort property. You can probably guess the reason why – inadequate signage. Roadside signs were evidently limited to low-lying monuments (I didn’t stop with a tape measure, but I’d say they weren’t more than 6 ft. tall). Even retail titans like Wal-Mart toed the line; seeing a big-box store identified with something less prominent than a vertical cabinet sign seemed surreal. There was clearly a street-setback stipulation for stores to be quite a few feet removed from the road. On the buildings, illuminated channel letters were permitted, but all I saw were insufficiently backlit. They hinted of strict luminescence requirements.

At one restaurant where we ate, the manager (unsolicited) said that local sign codes only permitted five colors – all muted variations of earth tones. We drove past the restaurant twice before finding it. They told my wife to “turn at the KFC.” Alas, the KFC wasn’t identified with its trademark gleaming, red-and-white cabinet sign or building-mounted letters; its sign was an unfamiliar, stone monument sign with blue and red hues as faded as a shirt that’s been through 500 wash cycles.

When we made a daytrip to Sea Pines, a posh, gated resort enclave on the tip of the island, the lack of signage became more glaring. Within Sea Pines’ property, the only directional signs were about 2 ft. tall, with ambiguous chevrons halfheartedly pointing the way. After dark, when we were returning to our hotel, it took three trips through the central roundabout before we could correctly define the direction back to the main thoroughfare.

I can somewhat understand local officials’ and business leaders’ desire to maintain a locale’s character. There’s a legitimate desire to preserve local heritage. But, there’s a need to balance historic character with economic vitality. How can businesses appeal to visitors without sufficient signage to build awareness? Presumably, many visitors are returnees who now know where to go, but why create undue strain for newcomers?

Odds are, we’ll return. It was an enjoyable trip, with idyllic scenery. But, the difficulty of finding destinations might render us less inclined to seek out unfamiliar places. Which, as always, will be most detrimental to the small businesses that are especially dependent on signage.
 

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