New Chicago Sign Rules Mean Logos Could Appear on Willis Tower, Aon, Hancock, Others

Remember when people in Chicago used to claim that the city’s downtown was an ad-free zone when it came to skyscrapers?  That notion has gone the way of Meigs Field, the Red Streak, and Chicago’s massive downtown Oktoberfest parade.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the latest tower to potentially plaster a promotion on its parapet is the not-even-started-yet Salesforce Tower.

“Salesforce Tower?” I hear you ask.  “Isn’t that the building in San Francisco with the controversial 158-foot-tall video wall wrapped around its top that is officially a ‘decorative crown’ that shows art films, so it is in no way at all attracting attention to Salesforce, which had the naming rights to the Salesforce Tower which is the home of Salesforce and where all the people from Salesforce work on Salesforce, so whenever anyone looks at the Salesforce Tower screen they’re reminded of Salesforce?  That Salesforce Tower?”

Amazingly, no.

Wolf Point rendering

The latest known public rendering of Wolf Point South

We’re talking about the Salesforce Tower that’s proposed for Wolf Point in the core of Chicago.

According to El Triborino, one of the conditions the west coast tech company has for bringing another 5,000 jobs to the Windy City is that it wants to brand its brand on the brand new Wolf Point South building.

On the surface, that doesn’t seem to be much of a problem.  Lots of downtown buildings have corporate logos on them.

In the summer of 2014, the entire city has to buy new underpants when then-civilian Donald Trump put a giant “TRUMP” sign on the second-tallest building in Chicago.  We used the brouhaha to point out how everyone was being a a bunch of big flaming hypocrites.  Chicago’s politicians used it as an opportunity to draft some rules about this sort of thing.

Now, with the scent of money in the air, Chicago pols are doing what pols do: Changing the rules again.

The new hotness is to allow even bigger signs on Chicago buildings, as long as those buildings are tall, and the signs are farther up.  Just perfect for courting a company that thinks nickel-and-diming its host city with a signage requirement is good business, and loves Chicago so much that if it doesn’t get a tower tattoo it’ll move on to Minneapolis, or Indianapolis, or even Annapolis.

Here are the new size rules:

  • Sign 150 to 199 feet off the ground: 200 square feet – About the size of a handicapped parking space
  • Sign 200 to 299 feet off the ground: 300 square feet – About the size of the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile
  • Sign 300 to 399 feet off the ground: 400 square feet – About the size of a King Superior room at the Conrad Chicago
  • Sign 400 to 499 feet off the ground: 500 square feet – About the size of a school bus
  • Sign 500 to 599 feet off the ground: 600 square feet – About the size of the untitled Picasso in Daley Plaza
  • Sign 600 to 649 feet off the ground: 700 square feet – About the size of a currency exchange
  • Sign 650 to 699 feet off the ground: 800 square feet – About the size of a Metra train engine
  • Sign 700 to 749 feet off the ground: 900 square feet – About the size of a pickleball court in Maggie Daley Park.
  • Sign 750 to 799 feet off the ground: 1,000 square feet – About the size of the patio at the Naperville Marriott.
  • Sign 800 feet or higher: 1,100 square feet – About the size of a Metra car.

There are a few other rules, like no flashing, neon, projecting, roof-mounted, or painted signs along the Chicago River north of Roosevelt Road.

And another one that only permits square, or horizontal signs.  This rule will probably stay in force until a Chinese, Korean, or Japanese company wants to bring some jobs to town, but only if it can put up a sign in zongpai, serosseugi, or tategaki; or until their lawyers point out that the city is discriminating against east Asian scripts.

Here’s the upshot of all this: While city hall is falling all over itself to bring one company to Chicago, it’s opening up the possibility of a skyscraper sign land rush.

This is because the city is also easing the requirement that a building can only have a giant company name on it if the named company has offices taking up the majority of the building.  There are a bunch of office buildings in Chicago over a million square feet, and few companies in the world capable of taking up 51% that space.

So the new rule is that a company can get a sign with as little as 350,000 square feet.  That’s about 2,300 workers.   Which means we could easily see signs on buildings like the Willis Tower, the Aon Center, the John Hancock Center, and pretty much every other downtown skyscraper.

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

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