Night vision

Finding your way around a city at night can be a disorienting experience – even if you are sober. Emily Pacey investigates the multi-platform approach of current design practice, in light of the growing importance of the after-dark economy

The red lights of a city’s naughty bits have throbbed welcomingly into the night for more than a century, guiding many a drunken sailor safely into port. Indeed, it is arguable that red light districts boast the most globally recognised area branding and the clearest wayfinding system in the world.

In contrast, attempts to locate theatres and restaurants often end in apologetic shufflings past people’s knees and frazzled starts to dinner dates. But city councils are finally recognising that tailored wayfinding and public lighting strategies can boost business for pubs, clubs, restaurants, theatres and cinemas, known collectively as the night-time economy.

FW Design is working on a big-budget wayfinding project for Dublin city centre, set to launch in January, that will feature a considerable number of backlit maps. Each sign will have a sensor that detects when light levels fall, triggering the maps’ illumination. ’From a graphics perspective it has been quite a challenge, since the map colours and graphics can change quite dramatically in daylight and when backlit,’ says FW Design managing director Roger Crabtree. The consultancy is so confident of the future of illuminated maps that it spent 2009 – ’a quieter year for us’ – creating Frank, an off-the-peg city wayfinding system that includes relatively low-cost solar-powered backlit maps.

’Town centre managers are now particularly switched on to the night-time economy, and illuminated mapping makes a big difference in allowing people to discover what is available,’ says Crabtree.

A major new driver for night-time wayfinding is the introduction of a national awards scheme last year. The Purple Flag initiative aims to ’recognise great entertainment and hospitality areas at night’. Its judging criteria for a good town centre include movement, place, appeal and well-being. ’Wayfinding and lighting at night are closely linked to perceptions of safety, so they are very important,’ says Purple Flag co-ordinator Daniel McGrath.

Last year, Applied Information Group created a map app highlighting night-time venues in Brighton, illuminating restaurants in orange and bars and pubs in pink, enticing visitors to the city’s hotspots. In 2007, lighting specialist Speirs & Major worked with Placemarque wayfinding consultancy on a pioneering ’light and darkness strategy’ for Durham. ’We encouraged the council to do a night map showing certain vantage points and ways and routes that would be more dominant at night, showing pubs, clubs and restaurants, which was a reasonably unique approach at the time,’ says Ben Acornley, design director at Speirs & Major.

Speirs & Major tries to help people to navigate cities instinctively rather than in the literal manner of a wayfinding consultancy. Director Mark Major names the corridor of blue light that the consultancy created by putting ’collars’ around lamp-posts leading from The O2 in Greenwich, down to the Thames Clipper platform. ’It creates an instinctive link between the blue-lit Peninsular Square that The O2 sits in, down to the river,’ says Major. ’It is using light on an intuitive basis to create a feeling of knowing where you are’.

There are few experiences as unnerving as being lost in a strange – or even your own – city at night. ’Street lighting tends to make people feel disoriented at night, because it flattens everything out and lowers the visual ceiling,’ says Major. ’You suddenly don’t see the church spire towering upwards, which is your daytime landmark. Night-time lighting can very much help to define a space’.

David Gibson, principal of New York-based wayfinding consultancy Two Twelve, talks of the use of lighting statements at night. ’Wayfinding systems have become much more complex, multi-component and multimedia,’ he says. ’Light projections are one tool in a box, being particularly appropriate when you are engaging people about the possibilities of the night-time economy.’

Jason Bruges Studio creates public art out of light. It has just converted a huge illuminated installation at Sunderland rail station. The 144m-long piece runs the length of a platform and shows shadowy figures walking up and down, as though waiting for a train.

Jason Bruges appreciates today’s multimedia, multi-layered approach to wayfinding. ’That is when things are most powerful, when they are an artwork, a signpost, a landmark, a way of finding your way around – all these things at once,’ he says.

The combination of bold lighting artworks, illuminated maps and thoughtful, fun public lighting systems could make for solidly pragmatic, magical and intuitive solutions to the problem of navigating a city at night, perhaps a little worse for wear.

Latest articles