Hang’em high

Adventurous signage can transform a drab interior into a strong focal point, discovers Nicky Churchill, and it’s a market that looks set to hit the big time

Signage is big business. According to the British Sign Association, at the peak of the late Eighties boom the estimated UK turnover for the signs industry was 350m. Since the recession this figure has dropped, but the market is now recovering and the BSA estimates that the total turnover for 1996 should be around 280m.

Competition is fierce however, both for the independent crafts-based company and the larger commercial organisations. The recent and substantial increase in raw material prices has not helped. But with the introduction of new materials and techniques, and advances in colour printing, digital imaging and computer technology, we can hopefully look forward to some innovative thinking in the next few years.

The fast approaching millennium celebrations should provide plenty of scope for designers and manufacturers, whether it be for street bunting or architectural signage for schemes funded by the Millennium Commission. Big high street names and commercial organisations are beginning to think about rebranding, having spent a decade implementing smaller in-store changes in a cost-conscious way.

The Storehouse Group commissioned 20/20 Design & Strategy Consultants to design a new retail store concept for its Bhs outlets. The design team was responsible for every element of the scheme, and undertook a strategic review of the entire Bhs business prior to developing a practical and financially viable solution.

Signage played a large part in this rebranding exercise both inside and outside the store, with each site requiring different treatment. The single-storey shop in Solihull – despite its difficult location – has been transformed into a dramatic focal point of the town square, drawing customers like a magnet. Vertical hangings and a tensile structure on the roof give the impression of “the total shopfront”, although the two storeys above the store are, in fact, residential. The ground floor shopfront has also been opened up and full-height glazed windows and a slim canopy introduced, subtly lit from above and below. The new signature logo, aimed at “today’s woman”, has undoubtedly softened the image of Bhs and will soon be implemented nationwide on shop facias, vehicles, packaging and at point-of-purchase.

But although many of these commissions may be given the tag “millennium” or “project 2000”, as indeed the Bhs concept was, it’s more likely that retailers are looking to increase their market-share as the sector becomes more buoyant. In the same way, petroleum companies such as Texaco are upgrading their sites and introducing convenience retailing, in an on going competitive market.

Brian Rutherford, graphics director at John Herbert Partnership, agrees that it’s probably early days to be thinking about signing for the millennium, but doesn’t dismiss that it could soon gain momentum.

This feeling is echoed by many signage companies, but one which hopes to get ahead of the game is Plumb Signs, a major player for retail chains and petroleum companies in the UK and on the Continent. Recognising that many businesses will be considering corporate changeovers, Plumb will be introducing a “millennium implementation pack” later this year. Targeted at clients and designers, and given away free of charge, the pack will include information and advice on the preparation of drawings and tender packages, Green issues and guidelines on presentation and timing. Plumb will also be offering free technical consultancy on any millennium project. All well and good, especially given the industry opinion that the majority of designers need to be educated about signage and the new technology and manufacturing processes available.

Banners and fabric hangings also seem destined for these flag-waving festivities and, as seen at Bhs in Solihull, certainly provide a cost- effective way of signalling retail change without altering the structure of a building. Typically found in museums, galleries and large retail environments, vertical hangings have the benefit of weighing less than traditional panels while at the same time adding a 3D interest to an otherwise empty space.

Michael Dowd of Dimensions, designer and manufacturer of fabric displays, has recently introduced a new range of high-performance woven fabrics to the UK, for just this sort of use. Aimed at internal and external applications, Dowd has found a way of lengthening the life span of the traditional flag (typically six to nine months) by applying high-density colour-fast inks to a high-strength, stretch-resistant and fire-retardant fabric. This technique was put to the test at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds where, working alongside architect Derek Walker & Associates and graphics group Minale Tattersfield & Partners, Dowd produced a series of banners made from open- and-close-weave fabrics.

In the linear atrium or “street”, large vertical hangings have been used to subdivide the space, with graphics printed on both sides pointing the way to the individual galleries at each level. Lit from above, the open-weave fabric adopts a translucent quality resulting in a fusion of graphics and architecture. Outside the museum, colourful banners in a close-weave glass-fibre fabric lead the way to the Tiltyard area, where jousting and hunting displays take place on a daily basis. Here, the design team has avoided the theme-park image, and has used strong colours and specially designed structural masts which harmonise with the high-tech tent structure by Buro Happold.

For the future, Dowd would like to see the introduction of more innovative forms, and designers exploring new materials, brighter colours and 3D – not unlike the technology used in kite-making. And like many designers, he believes signage should be seen to be part of the architecture. “It is all a question of scale,” he concludes.

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