Signs of equality

Sign designers know that signs should be kept simple. But when a client asks you to double the information by having dual languages, the task of keeping them looking simple becomes much more challenging.

The opening of St Pancras International this month ushered bilingual English-French into the new Eurostar travel terminal created in London’s King’s Cross, with a careful wayfinding scheme devised by Tony Howard of Transport Design. Meanwhile, designers working on projects in Scotland and Ireland are increasingly encountering requests for dual-language signage. The Scotland Government is currently working on a Gaelic Action Plan, which may lead to legislation for more use of the Scottish language alongside English.

Wales is further advanced in bilingual or dual-language design, with the Welsh Language Act having stipulated that two languages be used for public information since 1993. Many countries throughout the world use two – if not more – languages on their signs, and airports are an ideal place to see how dual-language signs can work – or fail.

Designers face several challenges, such as making the two languages look different visually, especially when the client insists that they share equal footing: this rules out different weights of type or colour to distinguish the languages. Another uncomfortable information design issue arises when words or destinations are the same in both languages. Duplication looks odd, and adds to the amount of information displayed, but some amount of repetition is preferable to the visual consistency being disrupted.

One solution, suggested by the Guide to Bilingual Design produced by the Welsh Language Board, is to ‘consider using pictograms instead of words, if appropriate’. This may help avoid duplicating textual information on signs, but few pictograms are genuinely understood without the aid of supporting text. In many environments, both text and pictograms are used in a ‘belt and braces’ approach, so their ability to communicate bilingually is not always an effective shortcut; the symbols merely become a third language to be accommodated.

Deciding what information should be put on signs can prove a contentious, time-consuming issue for many client teams, but when there are two names to agree for every destination – and regional translations can vary – the process can become a headache.

‘Translation into Gaelic isn’t always word for word,’ says Tristram Woolston, who designed dual-language signage for Scottish Natural Heritage (see box opposite). ‘At the moment there’s little standardisation for common sign translations, although the Gaelic Development Agency, Comunn na Gàidhlig, is setting out some standards for use in bilingual signs.’

And getting reliable translations is essential. The Guide to Bilingual Design warns that ‘misspellings and mistranslations can prove costly, particularly in the case of signs, and such errors may also reflect badly on the organisation’.

Colette Jeffrey is a wayfinding consultant, and a project director at Applied Information Group, London


Client: Dublin Dockland Development Authority
Location: Dublin, Ireland
Design: Wood & Wood Design

Wood & Wood Design found legibility an issue in Ireland when they designed dual-language signs for Dublin Dockland. ‘The greatest challenge was keeping the Irish text in proportion to the English, as in most instances the translation became too long for the structure, compromising legibility,’ explains Angus Tilbury of Wood & Wood Design. ‘It was important that both languages were represented equally and that the capital letter height of the Irish was kept the same as the English. To achieve this the translations had to be reviewed.’

Colour was a vital device employed in the design of the system. Tilbury says, ‘It was important that both languages were seen to be equal, yet they could not be the same colour as this would cause problems with general comprehension. We tested scenarios with different colours to achieve a balance that worked for all instances, as well as graphically.’ The work paid off, and the new system has won an award from Gael-Taca, an organisation formed to promote the Irish language.


Client: Scottish Natural Heritage
Location: Inverness, Scotland
Designer: Inside Information

Inside Information recently designed dual-language signage for Scottish Natural Heritage’s award-winning headquarters near Inverness. Grappling with two dissimilar languages posed several challenges, not least fitting in text, says Inside’s director, Tristram Woolston. ‘Gaelic words can be very long, so if you’re doing a side-by-side translation, Gaelic is often going to run up to twice as long as the English text, even for quite short sign messages and information.’ As space for signage is invariably limited, longer line lengths lead to smaller text sizes. ‘This leads to a potential difficulty in that sign text may no longer conform to Disability Discrimination Act size and legibility requirements,’ Woolston reflects.

The job was made more difficult by SNH wanting to achieve complete equality between the two languages. ‘This meant not being able to use a different weight of the same typeface to distinguish the two languages which, typographically, would have been a better device to use,’ says Woolston. Inside Information originally proposed using English text in black and Gaelic in grey, but this was turned down by SNH on grounds of status. SNH communications manager John Walters says, ‘We felt that having Gaelic in grey and English in black – a stronger, more dominant colour – implied Gaelic was the weaker member.’ Dark blue was instead used for both languages, and these were positioned in separate columns. l

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