Signs of direction

A BLOKE in Regent Street with a placard which reads “John, Paul, George, Ringo; The Beatles shop this way”, constitutes the best piece of tourist signage in London. That’s not to say the place isn’t littered with sub-Dickensian items pointing to attractions. Most of this, unfortunately, is as ineffectual as it is ugly.

The absence of city-wide consistency in information, typography, colours, materials or ideas means that the signs aren’t readily spotted even by the people who are looking for them. And the users are largely peripheral. Some tourist buses proclaim “Wilkommen” and “Bienvenu” on the side as ads for their multi-lingual guide tapes, but that’s about the extent of our indulgence of non-English speakers.

The usual excuse for London’s failings – there’s no metropolitan authority, but Mo/Ken/Jeff/Trevor will sort the problem out the moment s/he’s elected – doesn’t cover it. The inadequacy of London’s tourist signs points to deep-seated issues to do with the status and function of commissioned design in Britain.

The brief might read: “A new-build health unit somewhere in the North. Dear contender, here is a list of the signs we want. Give us your proposal in a sealed envelope in two weeks’ time before 12 noon. Get in touch if you need more info. If you feel it’s necessary to visit the building (which is almost finished), we’ll casually drop into the conversation that the budget, all in, is 50p. Good luck.”

This is the British way. Change the facts around and you’ve summed up our approach to environmental graphics. And what’s wrong with that? They’ve fixed the budget, we know what they want, let’s figure out how to make it pay and Bob’s your uncle. It’s the lipstick school of sign design: a challenge that’ll stretch your skills, though not the ones you had in mind when you came into the business.

What’s wrong is, first, the questions are answered before anyone who knows what they are has asked them, and second, there are no expectations about the function of design, besides tarting things up. And whose fault is that?

If the problem is ignorance of what design should do, the fault obviously lies with design consultancies for failing to make the case. Well yes, a bit. When faced with an inadequate tender, or a client who wants “pitch concepts” for a nominal fee, it helps if we just say no (and tell them what to do with it).

It’s more a case of bad project planning being the order of the day. Designers are not even thought of until after the key decisions have been made, and budgets are set without talking to anybody who understands communication design. The process is caught in a hardware-dictated vicious circle. Equally at fault are the architects, who understand about manufacturing, but don’t understand about graphics, although they’d die trying to argue that fact. The communication designers should be co-ordinating all forms of communication, including signs, identity, interactive and print. The planners and architects, if they look at effective environmental projects elsewhere in the world, should be aware of this.

Finding they’ve curtailed the scope for well-researched information and imaginative product design, clients can become prone to a justifiable anxiety as to whether the designers can fulfil the functional requirements, and so press for obvious solutions. If the only remaining weapon in the make-up bag is the lipstick, perhaps we should lay it on a bit thick. Type becomes bold Helvetica, arrows big and colours bright. If a sign doesn’t work as a standalone piece, then we can’t be doing our job.

Such time-warp visual pollution, much evident in our cities and airports, contrasts with modern classic systems such as that designed by Theo Ballmer for Frankfurt Airport a few years ago, with product design by Fischer und Partner, and carrying through Otl Aicher’s and Stolz Design’s pictograms from the previous signs system. The finished design was developed by Frankfurt Airport Authority. It is restrained, structured and laid back. Trouble has been taken to work everything out in detail. If a sign’s not needed, it’s not there. This system doesn’t have to shout – it has the authority to be heard sotto voce.

Another great system was designed by Ruedi Baur, Eva Kubinyl and Ludovic Vallognes for the Domaine de Chambord national park in France: sculptural monuments with simple typography and eloquent pictograms (by Laurent Lacour).

The interactive guide in the foyer of the Centre for Art and Media Technology in Karlsruhe, Germany, is a simple and intuitive piece of communication, designed by Jeffray Shaw, director of the Institute of Media Arts for the centre. The function of these systems is thoroughly thought-out and they enhance the environment in which they are placed. ©

There are good systems in Britain, too. Not many yards from the Beatles sandwich man, there’s a fine example of holistic, durable and effective signage: London Underground.

The Underground boasts simple and consistent signs, a flexible and intuitively understandable array of maps, and a recognisable symbol and identity. It’s a model of the collaboration between different disciplines that makes a good system: product, information and graphic design, all expressed in manufacturing quality, print and identity.

But it was done a long time ago. A whole load of who-for and what-if questioning went into that project in a way that’s rare now, producing something so appropriate and robust that it has withstood generations of management.

Today, due to their late arrival in a project, poor resources and restrictive expectations, sign designers in the UK don’t often get the chance to rise to the task in a manner that might secure a higher status for the profession. The key to a successful project is co-ordination of skills, whether from a single group or a combination of players. Usually that means a visionary client.

At Assorted Images we’ve been lucky: on the Science Museum basement and schools entrance, our design director Norman Hathaway worked with interior designer Ben Kelly, the museum’s head of design Tim Molloy, photographer Tomoko Yoneda and our sign fabricators in Canada and England.

The signage project at the Diana Children’s Hospital in Birmingham was brought about by the architect, the late Paul Newman of Powell Moya, backed by chief executive Colin Hough and commissioning chief Alix Moore. We collaborated with Satoshi Kitamura, developing pictograms for services such as toilets, lifts and restaurants. Our system has grown into a broader project, including guide booklets in eight languages, an identity manual on CD-ROM and a book about the hospital’s history. Our projects aren’t exactly sotto voce, but they are strongly rooted in function and we share the aim of trying to enhance the environment.

A UK project which also seems to buck the trend is Bristol’s ambitious Legible City, co-ordinated by Mike Rawlinson with product design by PSD Associates, graphics by MetaDesign and movement planning by Urban Initiatives and City ID. Due for unveiling later in the year, it’s a city-wide information and identity scheme built on street-level signs and a wide array of other communications.

The objective is to stand out as a European city, attracting tourism and investment. According to the participants, a great deal of city-funded research is going into getting it right, with lots of “joint brief-writing” between the consultants and the council. The final funding for implementation will largely come from the private sector.

This is evidence of a growing awareness that communication design can be an integral part of development, not an add-on, allowing architectural graphics to be aligned with modern trends in environmental design as seamlessly as at Karslruhe and Chambord.

It’s very unusual for communication design to receive the attention needed to match a project’s general ambitions. It isn’t that designers are hard done by, or that their involvement will automatically enhance a scheme. But the long-term presence of some signs or public information is certainly taken for granted in most projects. Thinking this through holistically at an early stage can make a better contribution to the end result. It’s hard to suggest improvements to the menu when you join the table for dessert. Pass the cognac, would you? n

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