Reading the signs

Nicky Churchill looks at the signage systems being developed for three major projects, and discovers a surprising difference in approach.

The Railway Station

Paddington Station for Railtrack

Railway station signage is traditionally not very user-friendly, often consisting of one big departure board mounted above the tracks. Travellers gaze upwards, waiting to be directed to the correct platform – a waiting mass, hindering others in their journey, while they themselves just get a pain in the neck. At London’s Paddington station – the first of Railtrack’s Station 2000 projects – all this is soon to change.

Rodney Fitch & Company and the industrial design team at Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners have taken a new look at signage and customer information systems. The main thrust of this is a series of free-standing units – or totems – capable of carrying not only static signage and CIS monitors, but also telephones, emergency equipment and controls, all within one zone.

The overall masterplanning for Paddington Station’s signs has been carried out by Rodney Fitch & Company which has looked at how customer information should relate to people. “It’s all about creating a language of communication which gives you small bite-size chunks as you move through the station,” says Rodney Fitch managing director Chris Jenkins.

The use of totems was an early idea, explains NGP project leader James Robson, and draws from the team’s experiences in developing a similar installation at Waterloo International Terminal. At Paddington, the system has been taken a stage further, integrating the Profile One system designed by NGP for German © manufacturer Mabeg. This has been extended to cater for a transport environment, incorporating new elements to deal with the different modes of travel at Paddington – rail, air, Tube, bus and taxi. The team has also had to mesh with Railtrack’s corporate identity change to be implemented at 14 major stations.

The new Brunel typeface, has been designed by Lloyd Northover Citigate and effectively brings rail type into the digital age, working as both screen graphics and static signage. A new family of pictograms and the new colourway of white on blue (instead of black on white) are to be implemented, both of which respond to recognised European standards.

One of the main advantages of the totem is that it centralises cabling and switches into one unit, leaving Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s listed steelwork clean and in its original state. The basic frame is formed from aluminium profiles which can be wall-mounted, ceiling-hung or freestanding and, by providing fixing points for mounting brackets and ample space for wiring, it can be easily adapted to accommodate new demands. The CIS monitors, manufactured by Ferrograph with housing design by NGP, are strategically sited throughout the station, mounted on the totems mostly in pairs.

According to NGP industrial designer Eion Billings, one of the principle aims was to get people into the retail areas and away from the main station concourse. The result is not dissimilar to an airport environment, with monitors in the café and retail spaces providing travel information, which is constantly updated from a central control point.

But the most dramatic change is that NGP has done away with the main departure board, instead positioning two totems either side of the Tube entrance/exit. Each holds 11 screens with a scrolling body of information and visuals. “It’s all to do with the distribution of people,” says Billings – and, of course, you now get uninterrupted views down the station structure and the majestic Brunel arches.

A prototype is already in place at Paddington, serving the Heathrow Express fast link to the airport. The full system will be installed shortly.

The Shopping Centre

Being directed around a railway station is one thing; finding your way to an out-of-town leisure centre and then to the multitude of activities on offer is quite another. There will inevitably be a variety of signage – directional or wayfinding, traffic or vehicle management, car park and retail directory boards – all of which need to be legible, coordinated and easily recognisable.

The latest of these vast centres opened last week and is sited off the M60 motorway west of Manchester. The 600m Trafford Centre expects to cater for 30 million visitors a year. But how will they know where to go; which motorway exit to take; where to park; how to get to the shops, the bowling alley or the cinema? And at the end of their outing, how will they find their car again? Or know where to catch the bus?

The signage strategy has been devised by concept architect and multidisciplinary practice Chapman Taylor Partners, also responsible for the original logo. Its in-house team has developed a bespoke signage system to work both internally and externally. The theme is a classical one, in keeping with the architecture of the centre. It uses varying weights of Times New Roman lettering, rather than pictograms, which appear throughout on signage ranging from reconstituted stone obelisks in the car parks to hanging directional signs in brass.

Meanwhile, at Bluewater in Kent, due to open next March, although the signage strategy may have been worked out, the graphics and products are still under discussion. While it has been difficult to glean information about signage on this project, we do know from Gary Reeves, project manager at developer Lend Lease, that the signage has been tested through focus groups though no manufacturer has been appointed. For what is billed as Europe’s biggest shopping centre – with 139 400m2 of retail space, 14 000m2 of leisure facilities and car parking for 13 000 cars – this is surprising.

The project is being masterplanned by architect Eric Kuhne Associates, along with much of the signage element. On the graphics side, there have been a number of groups involved. Minale Tattersfield & Partners designed the identity, unveiled in May 1995, featuring the Invicta horse of Kent emerging from Bluewater. One year on, and due to its association with Lend Lease in Australia, its Australian arm, Minale Tattersfield & Bryce, was asked to design a signage system for the complex. The concept which developed included wayfinding systems and icons based on simple heraldic symbols. This was not adopted.

Henrion Ludlow Schmidt was then brought in to develop the wayfinding strategy with architect Eric Kuhne developing the “styling”. HLS worked on the project until June this year.

Meanwhile, The Partners is devising graphics for the directory boards for the car park levels. Again, the designers have been briefed by the architect, which is devising an animal theme to be used around the site. Those animals serving the four car park areas have to sit happily within the zones of earth, water, fire and air, each represented by a colour. For example, a bird, butterfly and bee represent the air zone (yellow); a swan, fish and crustacean are used for the water zone (blue). Each zone will represent a level within the multistorey car parks. The three open-air parking areas will be represented by trees – lime, oak and horse chestnut – and further external signage will have to be considered for the 20ha of parkland and 10ha of lakes.

Some of the exterior elements are already in place, such as the traffic signage, and Glazer Design has been involved in the implementation of the signage for the business centre. But, according to Reeves, decisions are still being made on the directory boards for the shopping centre itself – such as whether the 300-plus shops should be identified by name and number, or grid.

As Reeves points out, it is too early to reveal the whole signage story – particularly as some parties are unavailable for comment and others are giving out different stories. But what is evident, certainly on the graphics side, is that there appears to be some confusion about crediting design. And, according to one consultant, “it’s a very unhappy job”.

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