Way to go

Public-sector wayfinding design focuses on functionality and simplicity to provide straightforward information. But there is also room for graphic expressions of a building’s purpose and identity. Anna Richardson examines schemes that combine the functional and the bold

If you think there’s no room for boldness in functional wayfinding, then think again. When it comes to public-sector schemes, signage is often a great platform for conveying a building’s identity.

Signage projects are very powerful expressions of a brand,’ says John Brockliss, managing director of Aukett Brockliss Guy. ’It’s a very subtle thing – it’s not about being a brash, overt presence, but about appropriateness. It’s about delivering and reinforcing brand values.’

Wayfinding often stands apart from the ethos of a building, but there are opportunities to bring brand values alive within the wayfinding, agrees Alan Herron, creative director of True North.

The consultancy had the advantage of creating the brand for the new People’s History Museum in Manchester as well as the signage. Following the ethos of ’ideas worth fighting for’, the museum recounts the history and growth of socialism, and the signage aimed to reflect this. It was painted directly onto the walls, for example, to lend a ’rough and ready, slightly “protesty” feel’, says Herron. ’We wanted the signage to carry some of the ideas and spirit of the subject matter, even in the wayfinding.’

Some of the typography is large and bold – ’in the spirit of being radical’, says Herron. ’It doesn’t respect any of the straight lines the building is made up of. It’s as if vandals have broken in during the night. In my mind the building represents the Government and the signage represents someone who doesn’t agree with it.’

For the new signage for the National Media Museum in Bradford, consultancy Carter Wong chose to introduce a secondary graphic element. Inspired by the traditional movie clapperboard, it created bold angles and chevrons, which had the added bonus of behaving as directional arrows – literally pointing visitors in the right directions. The feature appears as cut-outs on wall signs and totems, and as chevrons on glass. ’It’s not a token graphic – it’s got its roots in film,’ says Phil Carter, creative director of Carter Wong. ’A lot of signage is not brave enough – sometimes it’s nice to inject a bit of personality.’

Even with the ability to reflect strong brand values on various walls, the functional is still a key aspect of signage schemes – especially in the public sector. At the People’s History Museum, True North did extensive research, erecting temporary signage systems and inviting members of the public to comment, to ensure all elements were appropriate.

The wayfinding design for the National Media Museum was initially part of a foyer development project, but Carter Wong’s firststage survey revealed more complex issues affecting visitor orientation.

The consultancy explored every corridor in every gallery ’to really understand how a visitor would view it’, says Carter. ’There is a lot to take in, but it’s about keeping it really simple – simplicity is key.’ That approach extended to the exterior of the building, with the chevron motif applied to guide visitors to the main entrance.

Wayfinding enhances amenity and enjoyment, and assists operational efficiency, particularly of complex public buildings such as hospitals or cinemas, where there is a lot of emotional interaction, says Brockliss. ’We spend a lot of time trying to get rid of unnecessary signage – it’s a combination of logical positioning, amalgamation and getting rid of redundant messages, introducing plain English and even changing the whole naming rationale of a site.’

For the University of Liverpool, Aukett Brockliss Guy changed the way buildings were named on campus, for example. It devised a scheme in which communication is structured by building name rather than buildings’ occupants.

Carter Wong also dealt with the issue of information overload at the National Media Museum, stripping away visual clutter and duplicate signs, and redrawing icons for toilets, wheelchair access, guide dogs and buggies.

In fact, accessibility considerations in publicsector buildings are what have increased the importance of wayfinding, believes Brockliss. ’All of a sudden, [signage design] is flavour of the month,’ he says. ’A lot of it is brought about by the Disability Discrimination Act – everyone has had to query the way in which directional information is communicated, not just to disabled users, but to all users.’

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