Sign of the times

AS WE ARE ALWAYS BOMBARDED BY SIGNAGE EVERYWHERE WE TURN, BEN TERRETT ASKS HOW DESIGNERS CAN ADD VALUE TO WAYFINDING SYSTEMS

My favourite door sign is on the south side of Long Acre in Covent Garden. About halfway down one of London’s busiest thoroughfares, there is a brown door that has written on it: ‘The brown door between Replay and Jane Norman’.

It is written in vinyl in nice neat brown Helvetica lettering on a lighter brown door. I have no idea which company or person put it there, but I have always guessed that it belongs to a creative agency. It must be great to tell visitors, ‘You get to the brown door between Replay and Jane Norman and that’s us,’ and it must be so nice to be directed to that brown door and to come across those words. That would bring a smile to your face, wouldn’t it?

As well as mysterious typography on strange doors, a concept I have been thinking a lot about recently is ‘unproduct’. Originally coined by the designer Matt Jones and built upon by the strategist Russell Davies, among others, unproduct is basically maximum idea, minimum stuff. It is an idea that offers some suggestions as to how brands and designers could help combat climate change. You get more value, but you produce less stuff.

It is such a new concept that good unproduct examples are very hard to find. However, clothing company Howies is making something called a Ten Year Jacket. When you buy one of these jackets Howies promises to keep, and set aside just for you, enough material and buttons to mend your jacket for ten years. That is thinking in the right direction. Another example that is close are the branded stickers you can now buy to put on your bottled water, thus giving the bottle more value and encouraging repeated use of it.

One important factor in unproduct is data. Because software is now everywhere, you can add and collect data easily and often. We have long realised that adding data to things often makes them more valuable; for example, the way houses become more expensive with added history – from ‘this used to be a fruit warehouse’ to those ceramic blue plaques. Those little bits of data are increasing the value without creating new stuff, keeping the wheels of capitalism turning while slowing down the treadmill of consumerism.

If you do not think this is important or realistic, consider this quote from Sir Martin Sorrell, the head of WPP, the world’s largest communications services group. In an interview with a trade publication recently, Sorrell said, ‘Our view, counter to what you expect, is that conspicuous consumption is not productive and should be discouraged.’

I can imagine you now thinking, how does all this affect signage? Earlier in the year Gregor Graf, an Austrian artist, created a series of photographs of London’s famous streets with all the signage, branding and graphics removed. These well-known streets, which many of you will have walked down many, many times, were rendered unrecognisable.

Do you remember when in 2007 São Paulo in Brazil banned all outdoor advertising, including billboards, neon signs and electronic panels? People are fed up with visual pollution, and they are fed up with urban spam. We have all arrived at a pleasant country crossroads to be greeted by an army of meaningless signs. Go here, do this, do not do that, visit this, beware of that. Cities are worse – every building is adorned by signs warning you not to smoke, telling you that you are being watched, or informing you who owns, manages and lives in the building.

This poses a problem for designers. Although people are fed up with cluttered streetscapes, recent massive public buildings like Heathrow’s Terminal 5 or the New York Times building have demonstrated how important signage is to the whole experience. But how do you give signage more value? How do you apply maximum idea, minimum stuff to signage? That brown door I mentioned at the start does not seem so silly now, does it? There’s a sign that has lots more value than just factual.

It is possible that it is just a case of less signage, not more. In JG Ballard’s novel Concrete Island, which is about an architect trapped by a car crash in the ‘compulsory landscaping’ of Greater London’s excess motorways, he says: ‘In his aching head the concrete overpass and the system of motorways in which he was marooned had begun to assume an ever more threatening size. The illuminated route indicators rotated above his head, marked with meaningless destinations.’ Meaningless, apart from the destination you are going to.

Maybe it is just better-thought-out signage. In 1989, the US state of Oregon approached local graphic designer Don Meeker with a commission to create a roadside sign system for scenic routes. Or put another way: add more information without adding clutter or increasing the size of the sign. After looking at existing fonts and failing to find an example that was legible enough for all the information required, Meeker set about designing the ultimate legible font and signage system. The final design allowed for clear reading, even at night, with headlamp glow. In fact, the redesign improved visibility by about 40 per cent, which translates to about 60m of added reading distance, which is pretty important when you are on the road. All this and they were able to use fewer signs and communicate more. It has taken about a decade, but this system is starting to be deployed across more than 20 states in America.

The elephant in this article and the above examples is satellite navigation. There is a case to be made that road signage will be made redundant by the march of Tom Tom and the like. Why do you need signage, however well designed, when some chirpy lady gives you all the directions you need from your dashboard? With the advent of visually rich GPS-able devices such as the iPhone, and their ultimate ubiquity, in a decade’s time maybe wayfinding can become personal and flexible. Personal wayfinding could become rich and engaging. It will be possible to add value and engagement to simple experiences, a bit like the brown door example.

Some people are already working on things like this. Kew Gardens has an interactive map where you can find out more about every single one of its trees. Using a Web-enabled mobile device, it is now possible to navigate Kew Gardens by an interactive map. Kew also has tree facts, downloadable via Bluetooth when you approach some of its blockbuster trees in the botanic gardens. Small bits of data, easily accessible, that are adding richness to the experience.

There is also a small, but fascinating website called Interestingthings.iamnear.net. You enter your postcode and it pulls up five interesting things you are near to. It gets the information from various places on the Web. It is personal, powerful and useful. Best of all, it is streamlined enough to work like a dream on a mobile phone, which makes it a wonderful addition to a day trip.

From these examples it is not hard to imagine personal interactive wayfinding programmes that not only give you information, but also point out things you might not otherwise have noticed. It is not hard to imagine that the same system could direct you in a more natural and human way than current satellite navigation systems. So you will get, ‘Here’s the brown door between Replay and Jane Norman’, rather than ‘in 90m turn left between 32 and 34 Long Acre’.

I don’t just mean maps or directions. I am thinking of nice simple arrows and graphics that act as hand-held signposts. It is not hard to see these changing as you move round a destination like Heathrow Airport, for example. The data could be clever enough to remember places you had visited before, your food preferences, frequent flyer lounges you are a member of, and so on. It could link up with social networking travel site Dopplr.com and tell you friends who were visiting the same city or destination. Maximum idea, minimum stuff.

One of the key aspects of unproduct is the ability to constantly add to your experience without the need to physically create more things. One of the key aspects of wayfinding is to make sure you get the information you need as efficiently as possible. In a carbon crisis world, a clever combination of the two could be a powerful innovation.

London-based graphic designer Ben Terrett is author of the Noisy Decent Graphics weblog

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  • Geoff Davis November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    This assumes that computer networks and their production and accessing devices are not products, and somehow magically use no resources. (Which brings to mind Asimov’s famous comment about technology).
    The computer revolution involves a huge increase in use of all sorts of resources, not a reduction. Replacing a few roadsigns and a paper map with satellites, GPS, Tom Tom, iphones etc etc… is this a serious article or are you being contrary?
    Also personalising gadgets is narcissistic to the extreme. Just what the advertisers ordered!

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