Modular or Custom Signs: Which Are Better?

August 12, 2021

This is an age-old debate within the architectural sign and experiential graphic design (EGD) communities: Modular signs vs. Custom.

Which is a better, modular sign systems or fully custom signs?
The answer? It really depends upon the specific needs of the project.
Environments where change is likely, i.e. hospitals, colleges or corporate facilities, can benefit greatly from having a sign program that’s easy to update with new messaging.
On the other hand, facilities like hotels and sports venues may not need the vast majority of their signs to be updatable, so a custom solution, or a combination of custom and modular, is likely a better fit.

Don’t modular sign systems limit a designer’s creativity and ability to create a unique solution for the client?
15-20 years ago, there was truth to this, but many of the newer modular systems on the market, especially the frameless options, offer the design community a blank slate and high degree of customization in terms of shapes, materials and finishes. Sign manufacturing technology has also come a long way, and many modular systems these days are far from the “off-the-shelf” solutions from the 90’s and 2000’s!
Are modular signs more expensive than fully custom, or simple plaque, solutions?
Not exactly. A modular sign system may cost 5-10% more than a fully custom solution on the front end (although not always!), but if any replacements are needed during the following several years, a modular sign, where only the display panel has to be updated instead of the entire sign, can present a significant cost savings to the end user… and will also avoid wall damage and repair during the process.

At APCO, we process an average of 1,900 orders each year for replacement sign inserts for projects dating back to the 1980’s, so we see first-hand evidence that modular signs are in fact put to use and do save clients time and money when it comes to maintaining their sign program.

Why consider a modular sign system even if frequent updates aren’t expected?
In addition to updatability, modular systems offer another not-so-obvious benefit: Installation with concealed screws!
While vinyl tape or a combination of vinyl tape and silicone is the fastest and most economical method of interior sign installation, and generally works in most cases, there are more and more wall coatings these days, including low-VOC and anti-microbial paints, that aren’t compatible with adhesives. To absolutely ensure a secure installation, mechanical fasteners are the safest option, and a modular system is more compatible with screw-mounting than custom plaques or stacked acrylic signs.

The debate regarding modular or custom signs will undoubtedly continue, and that’s okay.
At the end of the day, there’s a good fit for both options depending upon the project. However, if we had to choose, we would argue that today’s modular signs offer many of the benefits of custom solutions, but custom solutions never offer the benefits of modularity.