Guiding touch

Flashy design is rarely appropriate for wayfinding schemes in public cultural buildings such as museums and libraries. Keeping them deceptively simple is usually the best approach, finds Anna Richardson

Museums and libraries can be tricky to navigate, with all those indices and floors, accessibility issues and differently themed galleries. The job of signage schemes is to soothe and guide visitors, while not detracting from art or artefacts.

‘It’s about a delicate balance between providing the information that visitors need and not dominating the environment,’ says Alex Wood, director at Holmes Wood, which recently created exterior and interior signage for the newly extended Whitechapel Gallery in London. ‘With galleries and museums, first of all you have to make sure that the signage is going to work.’ The gallery’s opening garnered much exposure, but the wayfinding system is more understated. ‘We wanted this to be “very Whitechapel”,’ says Wood. ‘It’s white and clean, and if you need the information you can read it clearly.’

The signage extends the branding by Spin, with bespoke information graphics and gallery mapping. The simplicity belies meticulous detail. Holmes Wood has created 16 pictograms following the Whitechapel font, for example, replicating the Whitechapel ‘attitude’.

Signs for the rebranded Great North Museum in Newcastle, designed by Nick Bell Design, are also subtle in the way they reflect the museum’s new identity. Exterior signage reinforces it, using its bold orange colour and arrow motif, while inside signs lose the orange, retaining only the identity typeface on simple, black-and-white directional signs. ‘Once you’ve stepped even further into the galleries, you’ve left the identity of the museum behind,’ adds David Sudlow, creative design manager at Nick Bell Design.

Black-and-white and monochrome minimalism is not always what’s required, however. Bold signage can reinforce a brand, especially in cultural spaces. At new contemporary art museum Towner in Eastbourne, the brand is at the heart of the wayfinding. ‘The identity was inspired in part by the architecture, and the signage is where the two meet,’ says Katja Thielen, director at Together Design, which designed the identity as well as the signage, exhibition graphics and other printed material. ‘We wanted the signage to be part of the building, not an add-on, and not over-engineered. The result is bold, but simple.’ A high-colour ‘ribbon’ device central to the identity was extended for navigational signage, and colours picked form the brand’s palette, with green and blue selected to acknowledge the blue of the sea and the green of the South Downs.

Bold colour also forms part of Cardiff’s new Central Library wayfinding, with Stills Design creating a scheme to contribute to a positive brand experience. ‘The brief was to develop the wayfinding signage, but also to add that element of personality,’ says Kathryn Shaw, Stills Design production manager. With the library being open-plan, the signage had to stand out. Bright orange as the primary wayfinding colour and large numerals on each floor allow users to get a sense of location at a glance. Futura Bold typography – chosen for its legibility and simple letterforms which complement the architectural features – means that the signage is highly visible even in such visually ‘loud’ surroundings, adds Shaw.

Also reinforcing the brand with their signage are London’s Idea Store libraries. Bisset Adams, which created the original identity, is making the signage more unified, having rolled it out at the Bow library, followed by Chrisp Street, with Whitechapel and Canary Wharf to come.

The new signs take the original marque of ‘idea thought bubbles’ and develops it in new graphic motifs filling the bubbles with different elements. ‘This means we can communicate different ideas but still make sure that the brand itself is involved in the signage,’ says Adam Strudwick, head of interiors at Bisset Adams.

Whatever the approach, accessibility considerations run through all the signage schemes. Whereas, historically, the Disability Discrimination Act related mainly to physical environments, it’s being applied more consistently to visual and environmental design these days, making clear and easy-to-read graphics imperative, explains Strudwick. Colour contrast, size and spacing of letters and the use of Braille, tactile lettering and maps are carefully considered in all projects.
Good wayfinding makes visitors more comfortable, no matter whether it’s done silently or proclaimed proudly from the walls.

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