No Title

Signage aimed at kids often copies either Jackson Pollock-style scribbles or Beatrix Potter cuteness, and pointers for adults can be just as clichéd. But Beverley Cohen outlines three projects where the signage is a feature in itself

The Basement Gallery.

Signage by Assorted Images

Assorted Images design director Norman Hathaway tried to see the world through a child’s eyes while designing signs for the Science Museum’s new collection of children’s galleries, called The Basement (DW 13 December 1995).

Children’s typography specialist Rosemary Sassoon was a useful reference point for Hathaway, so much so that he selected one of her fonts, Sassoon Primary, for the signage.

Sassoon claims that young children may well see signs in a different way to adults. For example, they could easily get a lower case D confused with a lower case B, and may need them to be strongly differentiated.

So Assorted Images took a photographic approach, commissioning photographer Tomoko Yoneda to take shots of children playing. The results seem to leap energetically from the Basement’s walls.

“In the US, pictures are used instead of text far more than in the UK, but they tend to use symbols. I think photographs are more specific and friendly,” says Hathaway.

The image for the toilet sign caused some controversy. Assorted Images’ first choice was a very institutional looking number with a black lid and seat. The client didn’t like it so it was not chosen. “Perhaps it reminded him of school,” says Hathaway.

Hathaway kept a kid’s vantage point in mind, positioning the signs low off the ground. Porcelain enamel was the obvious choice of material, as it’s famed for its durability.

“It can last for 100 years and still be super-shiny. It’ll withstand kicking and scratching from kids,” says Hathaway.

He admits that The Basement was initially “a difficult job”, as it had been three-quarters designed and installed before he came on board. Ben Kelly Design created the overall masterplan and “had already colour-coded the sections, so we used those colours in the signs,” says Hathaway, adding: “We thought of some good concepts for a logo for The Basement, but decided not to show them to the client.”

Hathaway, who sees the signage as an identity in itself, with its own typeface and atmosphere, was apprehensive about falling into the trap of being patronising, or communicating with children in clich̩s Рa trap he has succeeded in avoiding.

But his fears are allayed on each visit: “I’ve seen kids pointing at them and laughing or staring. They certainly notice them, so they must be alright,” he says.

Tate Galleries. Signage by David Hillman

When artist Patrick Hughes appeared on a recent BBC Omnibus programme on Paul C̩zanne, he wore a shimmering purple suit Рhardly a crime, but distracting from the business at hand РC̩zanne.

Pentagram partner David Hillman did his best to avoid this catastrophe when designing signage for the Tate’s three galleries, one of which – the London flagship – is now showing the works of Cézanne.

“The signs had to sit happily with the art, they couldn’t compete. I’d have liked to have made them a bit more festive – I feel they’re a bit bland – but it just wasn’t possible,” he says.

The Tate itself has been delirious with joy for the past two years at its signage system, which has gradually been implemented in London, Liverpool and St Ives.

Head of Tate communications Damien Whitmore says: “David has made us a brand, the Tate brand. We use it like the Levi’s tab on the edge of jeans – it features on all our signage and literature. It was such a difficult brief, it had to embrace both modern and historical art and sit easily with the architecture of three very different galleries.”

The signage does – it has to be said – have a visual link with The Guardian’s identity, which Hillman designed in 1988. The two title words slot together, like The Guardian, though where the newspaper uses two different fonts, the Tate uses only Franklin Gothic.

According to Whitmore, signage is crucial at the Tate. “People meander, they don’t have a specified route, they treat the galleries like a country walk, so we must avoid letting them get lost.”

The London Tate’s signage works in two ways: banners and signs. The banners promote particular areas, such as TateShop, while signs with black and red arrows indicate the direction of particular areas, such as the toilets, auditorium and schools section.

Each Tate gallery’s signage is treated differently. The aluminium directional signs at London’s Tate are free-standing, as exhibitions are always changing and information can be easily moved.

Liverpool has a directory system, with information of what’s on each floor attached to the wall. Wording can be changed, but is designed to be semi-permanent. The first floor has cast-iron lettering on a plug system. Other information can be applied by decal or by using posters. “It’s an early Victorian brick and cast-iron building, and we wanted the signs to reflect the design and be made locally,” says Hillman.

St Ives has a very simple directional system, set on glass from a local supplier. “It’s type on glass, raised off the wall for a fairly static display. We used glass as the building is very modern, on the site of an old gasometer with a hell of a lot of glass,” explains Hillman.

A Tate member of staff says his life has become easier since Hillman’s signage has been phased in. “People still ask me where the loo is. They’ll do that however good the signage is, but fewer people ask since it was changed,” he says.

Latest articles