Direct action

The role of signs is changing – they’re now a branding tool to establish the atmosphere of an area as well as a source of information.

By definition, the primary function of any sign is to convey information and/or direction. But as a key interface between people and their environment, signs are also ideally placed for branding an area. Forget the cringe-worthy over-branding along the lines of Shakespeare’s Country. When done properly, signs are a key tool in the identity process, using graphics, material and form to convey a sense of place.

Their importance should not be underestimated, says BDG McColl chairman Stephen Hitchins, especially when teamed with an effective identity and communications strategy.

“Signs are just one part of an expression which can be used as a catalyst for the regeneration of a city. They can have an amazing presence if they’re done properly,” he says, requiring multidisciplinary skills of planning, typography, industrial design, and the study of human behaviour. The placing of the signs is as important as what’s on them.

Subtlety can be far more effective than heavy theming – when Henrion, Ludlow & Schmidt developed the signage for Canary Wharf, the consultancy simply used a vitreous enamel format common to most London streets to show that the area was part of the city, rather than a separate and remote development.

But, unlike Canary Wharf, sign branding projects are generally about standing out rather than blending in, aiming either to maximise and promote the existing characteristics of an area, or to reposition it.

At London’s Carnaby Street, Vantage Productions & Events was commissioned by property owner Shaftsbury to come up with signs designed to promote the area as a retail and leisure quarter. Working with JA Signs, Vantage chose vibrant purple poles combined with figures of young, culturally aware people on the signs, with the C Carnaby Street logo positioned prominently at the start of the street. Early plans for further prominent use of the C logo on the street itself were dropped.

“They’re stylishly done. They’re good design. They’re informative. They’re not heavily branded – the Carnaby Street branding is minimal,” says Vantage director Eileen Woods. “It’s making a big impact. People understand that they’ve arrived at their destination.”

So far six of the signs are up, and Vantage can claim some swift success – apparently tourists are already having their photographs taken alongside the new purple signage: the ultimate endorsement.

Wolff Olins has a much bigger task on its hands at Hull. The city council has asked the consultancy to rebrand the former fishing centre as a pioneering city. References will be made to former Hull residents such as Amy Johnson and William Wilberforce and visitors, will be reminded that it was the port where the Bounty docked and Captain Cook sailed on the Endeavour. Here, signs will be one manifestation of the project rather than the raison d’être.

“We want people to say a little bit less about the fish,” says consultant Aidan Kirby. “Signage is a very visual result of the [identity] strategy. What we want to do is make sure that the reason to come to Hull is backed by seeing attractions and by finding your way around,” he adds.

As well as rebranding, signs can have a vital role in creating an image for a totally new area or route. Building Design Partnership took a three-dimensional approach in its sign programme for a 40km Lea Valley Pathway stretch of the National Cycle Route. With the route going through different authorities, BDP had to find a way of linking the new route visually without introducing new logos or colours at every boundary. The solution, currently being prototyped, was branding via a simple twist in the structure of the sign upright. This was duplicated on street furniture, notice boards and fence posts. The upright is accompanied by square icons to signify areas of interest on the trail, and rectangular directional signs.

At Cribbs Causeway shopping centre on the outskirts of Bristol, BDP’s task was to use sign graphics to unite the shopping centre with other developments and give the impression that Cribbs Causeway is a branded area of Bristol rather than simply a shopping mall. Signs are used in conjunction with heavy landscaping.

“We’re trying to link in local nature trails with the retail park, shopping centre and residential [areas],” says BDP head of graphics Richard Dragun. “Everything is geared towards changing the status of the area, which they want to be viewed in its own right as Cribbs Causeway.”

Material can be as important as the sign graphics in the perception of an environment, especially in those areas with pedestrian traffic, such as London’s tourist-heavy St Katharine’s Dock. For Manchester’s Northern Quarter, design group Hemisphere used ceramic signs to brand the area, emphasising its manufacturing heritage. The project is part of a regeneration programme for the run-down area which is now being re-born as a creative quarter. Similarly, the robust steel used for signs in Bristol and St Katharine’s Dock is a reference to an industrial, dockyard history.

But, signage as branding is not always appropriate: when Newcastle goes ahead with its proposed gay-friendly development, it will avoid signs which draw attention to the gay nature of the area, fearing that it would create the impression of a ghetto and create rather than remove barriers. Others have reservations because of the danger of visual overload from excessive theming. Meanwhile, BDP’s Dragun fears that advancements in signs have led to a bombardment of information – particularly irritating for locals who don’t need it. “Technology has opened the floodgate for people to blitz the area with images. Buses are a good example – like mobile graffiti,” he says.

James Alexander of CDT Design prefers a more discrete approach. “They have to strike a balance between being easily found and easily ignored. It’s when they become such a statement that they tip the balance. They should be beautiful, but also discrete,” he says, adding that signs should be used along with other tools such as lighting, art, and sense of place to create an image for the area.

Chris Ludlow of Henrion, Ludlow & Schmidt, designer of the Millennium Dome signage, adds that the role of signs should not be neglected. “They can naturally take on a branding role, but people should get their priorities right. People see signs as an easy target because they’re a noticeboard on which to put branding,” he says.

Another difficulty, he says, is the sign commissioning. “Signs are commissioned by a variety of people: marketing people, architects who want it as small as possible or operations people who want it as big as possible.”

And unlike Hull, not everyone wants Wolff Olins for the job. For a recent sign project in Newcastle, the council commissioned graphics from its engineering department. Sometimes sign manufacturers pitch for the design as well.

But it’s the end result which counts. The success of directional signage is relatively tangible, but the effectiveness of signs as environmental branding is harder to quantify. It is just one of many factors which ensure that the city itself, rather than just the individual, is going in the right direction.

Commissioning a new signing system – things for the client to consider

  • Will people have received a map, written or spoken directions before they arrive at your site? Signs need to be consistent with any other wayfinding information.
  • How complex is your site layout and can it be simplified conceptually to help people orientate themselves and reduce the amount of information on each sign?
  • How many entrances are there? They will each need a locational sign, but are they also architecturally prominent?
  • Where are the key circulation routes and are they clearly defined?
  • Where are the key decision points along these routes and what information do people need at each point?
  • Do you understand the wayfinding needs of all your different site users – older people, first-time visitors, people with disabilities, staff, people who speak a language different to the language you use on signs?
  • Have you considered the accessibility of your site and the need for special wayfinding aids for people with disabilities? The Disability Discrimination Act stipulates that everyone must be able to get around your site.
  • Have all destinations at your site got one name used by everyone? Signs must use the same names.
  • What typeface, type size and colour of text and sign will be used on the signs? Will your choice provide optimum legibility for people reading the signs?
  • What sign construction and printing method will be used for the signs?
  • How can your available budget for signs be used most cost-effectively?
  • Taken from NHS Estates’ book Wayfinding, written by Colette Miller, a wayfinding consultant at Information Design Unit in Newport Pagnell.

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