Time of the signs

Signs in an art gallery, theatre or hall have to inform a large and varied audience with a different set of needs from travellers at train stations or airports. Emma O Kelly examines three signage programmes in ‘art’ venues and discovers the numerous prob

The Royal Albert Hall, London

From religious gatherings to rock concerts, the Royal Albert Hall holds some pretty diverse shows. After receiving more than 40m in Lottery funds last year, it began a major refurbishment programme masterplanned by Building Design Partnership. Along with new decor and facilities, the signage has been brought up-to-date. Untouched since the Seventies, the former signage system was overwhelming and “very complex”, explains Ian Blackburn, director of building development of The Royal Albert Hall, while the oval shape of the hall meant that – literally – visitors ended up going round in circles.

The Jenkins Group, in collaboration with Vickery Oldman, was asked to come up with a system of signs that would “simplify the existing space without detracting from the period feel of the hall”, says Blackburn. Designers Ian Wright and David Vickery opted for glass panels, loosely based on the those found in retail outlets. Not only are they modern, but they are detachable and can be changed quickly by staff if performances are cancelled or rescheduled. Since it is well-known that signs make prime prizes for many a kleptomaniac, they had to be strong and firmly attached to the walls.

As in most refurbishment projects, the client had strict stipulations about what was needed. “This was part of the challenge,” explains Vickery. “We were given the typeface Gaudi as this was seen as part of the building’s heritage.” The hall’s traditional colours of burgundy and green had to be retained. Meanwhile, “lavatories” was deemed a more appropriate word than “toilets”.

Even though the duo were called in at a very late stage, they were impressed by the level of planning that had gone into the refurbishment project. Vickery explains: “Decisions made at the planning stage affect the signage. The Royal Albert Hall and BDP had divided the building into four, using the points of a compass, which provided us with a crucial starting point. Signage and planning must always work together.”

Besides the usual building and fire regulations, a further set must be approved by the local authority for entertainment spaces. Then there’s the issue of disabled access. “The Royal Albert Hall has bent over backwards to make the building accessible,” says a spokeswoman from architectural practice Wycliffe Noble, which specialises in catering for the disabled, and worked on this project. Vickery and Wright responded accordingly, and disabled facilities, including the four refuge areas where disabled visitors go in case of fire, have been included in all aspects of the signage.

However, even with all the client stipulations required for such a prestigious London landmark, Wright explains that they followed basic rules applying to any signage project. In general, one of five standard sans serif typefaces is used. Every sign designer’s goal must be to achieve clarity and simplicity. It is common sense to cut out all the waffle on signs, presenting the reader only with information needed at that particular moment. Visitors switch off if they suffer from information overload.

The first signs are being installed in the circle area tomorrow, ten months after the project began. Their debut coincides with the first night of the Proms. Let’s hope visitors will be singing their praises.

The Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A granite-effect polymer provided the basis of the signage programme carried out by Communication by Design for the V&A. For such a labyrinth of a building, it is no surprise that introducing signage has been a slow and costly process, with the system being installed in stages as funds become available. So far, at the cost of 105 000, it has taken three years for the ground and first floor to be re-signed.

CbD founder Geoff Aldridge explains: “More modern buildings have defined corridor routes, but the V&A has annexed areas, added sections and no obvious walkways. There are no evident keylines, so we had to identify key galleries and decision points.” Unwilling to rush into anything, the V&A introduced six temporary sign panels and assessed visitor response over a six-month period. Modifications were made, then a further three-month pilot was run.

Since the V&A is continually closing galleries and holding temporary exhibitions, a system that could be easily interchangeable was a must, says Aldridge. CbD’s solution comprises big magnetic boards, which staff can easily update, and which are too large to be snitched by enthusiastic souvenir hunters.

Apart from the fact that “ideally, the V&A wanted the signs to vanish”, Aldridge’s biggest challenge was to come up with “discreet signage that wouldn’t conflict with the exhibits”. Whether the V&A will ever stop being a challenge to even the most skilled orienteer is debatable. Meanwhile, the V&A is waiting for extra funding before CbD can begin work on the final phase – the signage of the third floor.

The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao

So well received was the signage system in the Guggenheim Museums in New York and Venice, that New York consultancy Vignelli Associates was called in for a repeat performance in the new Bilbao Guggenheim Museum. However, with Frank Gehry as architect, adaptations were inevitable. Vignelli Associates senior designer Graham Hanson explains, “Gehry’s architectural vocabulary deviates from the other Guggenheims. He uses a lot of titanium, so the signage uses stainless steel and glass to complement this.” Indeed, at the end of the 18-month programme, “the only similarity the Bilbao signs have to our other Guggenheim projects is through the use of the Futura typeface”.

The main challenge was that signage had to be in three languages, English, Spanish and Basque, the latter being the primary language “as a nationalistic feature”, says Hanson. “It is always a huge problem doing a programme in more than one language,” he explains. “But Basque is a rare dialect. We had real problems finding translators.”

In an attempt to minimise the enormous number of words the three-language system uses, Hanson incorporated pictograms and numerical systems wherever possible; traditional symbols to indicate toilets and stairs were applied, and the classic fire exit symbol was modified. Hanson points out that there is no signalling for disabled users. “In the US, the Americans with Disabilities Act enforces a strict code in public areas, but it was decided that this would be too much with the three languages already in place,” says Hanson.

Even though Gehry had a strong vision of what he wanted, Hanson claims: “It’s much easier to work on a greenfield project. With a refurbishment, the client has preconceptions which must be fought.” Set to open in the autumn, the consultancy has had more than 18 months to work on the signage as it was called in at the beginning of the project. Not only could Hanson witness the construction process, but tweaks to the signs could be made there and then.

For Hanson, the difference between designing signage for art buildings and transport centres such as stations and airports, lies in the amount of information displayed. “In an art gallery it is crucial not to oversign areas and overwhelm visitors, but oversigning is a safer bet in a station. If you make travellers get lost and miss their trains, you know you have failed,” says Hanson. “But when it comes to galleries, it would be much nicer to eliminate signs altogether and have people wandering around losing their way.”

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