Signs and portents

From postcoding and colour-coding to ’branded areas’, Emily Pacey explores a range of radical approaches to helping people find their way around large and complex office environments

Postcodes generally mean a great deal to the Royal Mail and almost nothing to the rest of us, but they are a growing trend in office wayfinding. From Manchester’s new Media City UK to O2’s headquarters in Slough, workers are learning to find their way around office complexes using signage in postcode format, such as ’WB1 12’. But is this just a gimmick, or do such codes really help people to find their way around better than the traditional signs and arrows?

’The feedback we have had about wayfinding has been incredibly good,’ claims Someone co-founder Gary Holt, who worked on the O2 project last year. As well as simply helping people find their way around, the system the consultancy developed also allows office staff to book workspace when hot-desking and makes it easier for staff visiting from overseas to book, and then locate, meeting rooms at O2’s Slough HQ.

Holt says, ’This requires a code by which to book space – and a short one at that. Ideally, these codes relate to the surroundings.’ Previously, booking codes did not relate to the general signage in the complex, but now the reception area has engraved wooden signs pointing to ’west end’ or ’east river’ areas of the complex, which translate directly into the codes. An example at O2 is WE2 15, which is readily deciphered as ’the end of the west building on the second floor at desk number 15’.

’This system would be appropriate for any office, because the logic certainly works,’ says Holt. ’But your client does need a bold and creative spirit to run with the idea.’

One such client is Media City UK, the 14.5ha new home for the BBC, ITV, Vision & Media and the University of Salford located at Salford Quays, Manchester. The complex is implementing a wayfinding scheme designed by The Chase. Originally, the consultancy was briefed to create traditional names for the buildings on the site, but The Chase had a different idea.

’We came to the conclusion that postcodes could be an interesting approach to naming buildings, partly because postcodes are becoming increasingly familiar to people since we’ve started travelling by satellite navigation,’ says Mike Roberts, senior designer at The Chase.

And so the group created postcodes – which, incidentally, both the Royal Mail and sat-nav systems recognise – that reflect the function or status of the complex’s buildings. HQ, for instance, relates to the studio block, which will be located at the heart of Media City UK. The Chase has recommended that the postcodes be emblazoned on to or near the buildings – perhaps as large, 3D type. The streets of Media City UK will also be colour-coded to help people to find their way around.

O2 headquarters and Media City UK are both vast complexes, requiring detailed wayfinding schemes. Smaller offices can get away with far simpler schemes. Such buildings may limit themselves to a floor-listing in the lobby, arrows to office receptions and male and female bathroom symbols. But there is a trend towards creating ’branded areas’, with strongly defined identities, that is doing away with the need for traditional signs.

Scott Brownrigg’s been working on Google’s office extension in London’s Victoria, giving it a Brighton seaside theme. ’We haven’t gone around putting a lot of signage in saying “This way to reception” or “The training suite”, but there is a lot of iconic objects and areas throughout that amount to a wayfinding scheme,’ says Ken Giannini, Scott Brownrigg’s interior design director.

The 3700m2 doughnut-shaped floor features giant dice containing video conferencing pods, a restaurant (called Brighton Wok) and, adds Giannini, ’some very clear sightlines across the floors that allow you to see the features, which are spread out to encourage people to move around and integrate with their colleagues’.

But there are some traditional signs. Newcomers to the office – job interviewees, for example – must find their way to beach huts labelled ’Piers’ or ’Sunshine’ for their meetings.

For Holt, this kind of approach is a trend set to continue among clients. He says, ’People are starting to understand that an office environment is a physical embodiment of a brand and so they are starting to think much more creatively.’

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