Vertical signage

Creating signage for a new development containing the world’s tallest building, the Burj Dubai, presents novel challenges. John Stones reports on a monumental project

Earlier this year, the world’s tallest building began its dramatic ascent into the sky. The Burj Dubai, stretching upwards to a meteoric 180 storeys, is an audacious act of campanilismo that will form the centrepiece of a new downtown Dubai. Covering a square kilometre, the downtown area will consist of seven zones, including a main drag called the Boulevard on which the tower – replete with the first ever Armani hotel – is situated, the Dubai Mall – again aggressively designed as the largest in the world – and the Old Town, a low-rise development on a lake that draws inspiration from traditional Arabic architecture, as well as Barcelona’s Ramblas.

The signage, like everything else, had to be created from scratch. This was entrusted to Landor Associates, which was awarded the overall branding brief for the project. Not only did Landor start with a blank piece of paper, but the consultancy was working within a wayfinding vacuum; in the Middle East, street signs and the concomitant semiotic paraphernalia we are so used to are foreign concepts. Landor Dubai creative director John Brash explains that even addresses aren’t fixed. ‘It is possible for your house to have two different numbers,’ he says, ‘or to give your address in reference to a local landmark, such as saying you are two doors down from the Citibank building.’

Landor’s approach to the signage is innovative – the wayfinding aspects are totally integrated with the branding and marketing of the project. The Burj is a branding exercise not only for itself, but Dubai generally, intended to catapult it into general pre-eminence. This, says Brash, meant eschewing the literal approach to branding that is common in the Middle East. It also meant redefining the language of luxury away from flamboyant gold and florid decoration to a new visual style, using, for instance, muted greys and purples together with subtle textures, such as leather and matt metallics.

As the centrepiece, the Burj – which simply means tower in Arabic – supplied the DNA around which the signage was developed and also lent its name to the whole district. The tower also had to assume numerical primacy: the normal road numbering sequence is interrupted to give it the address of No 1 Burj Dubai Boulevard. The tower’s impressive height effectively makes the Burj Dubai into a vertical city, and required Landor to conceive signage not only on the usual map-like horizontal plane, but also vertically. So, if you had the very deep pockets to allow you to live in, say, the sixth apartment on the 103rd floor, your address would read 103/06, No 1 Burj Dubai Boulevard, Dubai.

The monolithic approach to branding and signage allows for the use of linked corporate fonts and typeface, all under the umbrella of the identity device of a single, vertical line representing the Burj. The use of the portrait format, rather than the more common landscape format, for the signs emphasises the vertical reach of the tower and is a subliminal reinforcement of altitude.

As well as introducing the Western convenience of a logical wayfinding system, the signage delivers a marketing benefit – by tying in the different zones (or ‘brands’) with the Burj, the developers can promote the other areas as part of the same family, basking in the reflected glory of the tower. ‘It allows us to build premium attributes and prestige into every district,’ says Brash. An even more direct marketing advantage is that the wayfinding system allows the developers to pinpoint and define the many different bits of real estate they are selling ahead of build.

Wayfinding and the establishment of a sub-branding network under a strong umbrella brand are indivisibly intertwined. Thus, the Dubai Mall signage and branding has a bright red lacquer finish, while the Old Town has a bronze and light ochre finish and the Boulevard has a deep violet and leather finish, while all sharing the same graphic format. ‘To ensure that everything hangs together, Foundry Sans is the only font that can be used on any application – brochures, signage, vehicles, on-screen, advertising – and only two weights can be used: Foundry Sans Demi and Foundry Sans Light,’ says Brash. In addition, an Arabic equivalent, which will complement the Latin font, has been developed.

The result is signage where all the brands can be communicated together on a ‘signage totem’, says Brash. And one where signs function more fully as signs than is usually the case.

In his novel Invisible Cities, Italian author Italo Calvino has Marco Polo telling an incredulous emperor Kublai Khan of all the cities he has seen. Imagine him recounting a city where all the signs pointed to wealth and a building towering 180 storeys into the sky…

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