Bold directions

Building a successful brand is all about getting the details right, and clear, expressive signage is a crucial part of this process. Anna Richardson explores how three retailers have revamped their wayfinding to enhance their brand identity

It’s obvious that a good sign should be functional, helping people navigate in a clear and easily understood way. But signs can do much more, and in retail, conveying the brand identity as well as guiding customers is particularly important.

‘Signage can help define a point of difference for a brand, it can be very powerful,’ says David Dalziel of Dalziel & Pow, which designed the interiors and signage for the recently relaunched Topman on Oxford Street in London.

Wayfinding schemes should aim for simplicity and clarity with a contribution to the retail environment, to support the vision without dominating, says Dalziel. Creativity and functionality should not be mutually exclusive, but ‘if it doesn’t work, it’s a distraction, so functionality comes first’.

Functionality was a given in the signage design for the new John Lewis department store in Cardiff, which opened last month, but Paul Porral, John Lewis head of creative services, also saw an opportunity to enhance the brand identity. Being a department store, John Lewis balances a dynamic between the host brand and other named brands. ‘With the power of brands such as Sony or Bobbi Brown, what the signage and navigational pieces allow you to do is stamp your own brand into the space,’ says Porral.

In Cardiff, John Lewis introduced powerful key elements that visually convey the company’s identity. These include a strong colour palette of what Porral calls ‘the new John Lewis greens’, which appear from the top-line down to the directional signage. The signage also features new – more elegant – cuts of the John Lewis Gill Sans typeface, including three-dimensional, architectural letters and numbers in the lift lobbies.

This revamped explicit signage is combined with implicit signage, such as large-scale imagery that helps customers navigate. ‘Because we have such a large space you need some standout colour and scale,’ says Porral.

Space was also a key consideration in the signage for Topman Oxford Street, which expanded to a new floor, doubling its space. There was a concern that the expansion would be lost on the regular customer, making signposting a priority. Dalziel & Pow used the wall space, suspended signs and freestanding totems to ensure the signs were not lost in the busy space. The signage is a development of the work for Topshop New York, which opened last spring, and includes a distinctive illuminated totem that carries messages in a flexible, face-applied black vinyl.

‘The style is a combination of the expressive and informative, as individual as the brand, but providing clear and informative navigation,’ says Dalziel. ‘Sometimes bold and striking, sometimes subtle and complex.’

The New York store’s escalator signage is also being repeated in the UK, at the Liverpool Topshop/Topman. ‘Where New York portrayed an exuberant, eclectic British quality, the Liverpool application uses fashion references to achieve the same lively and appropriate solution,’ says Dalziel. ‘It’s a great example of brand-building with integrated navigation.’

Fitch faced a different set of challenges when asked to review the Marks & Spencer Foodhall signage across all formats of the stores, starting with London’s Westfield shopping centre outlet. The consultancy identified that the existing signage was neither visible nor legible to shoppers, and often obscured by marketing material. In addition, there was no hierarchy to help consumers navigate in the way they wanted to.

The new system required a change of the layout of the store and categorisation of food and created a clear hierarchy which used a ‘high, eye and buy’ approach to signage. ‘The signage system is highly functional and efficient, reducing the need for repetition of signs, and thereby production costs and waste,’ says Fitch design director Sam Stone. But despite the focus on functionality, the system still reflects the premium nature of the foodhall, through use of materials and choice of warm colours, for example.

Having to work on so many different levels, signage should be considered an integral part of any retail interior design. ‘The scale and confidence of the application can enhance the brand environment if planned as a key component of the interior,’ says Dalziel. ‘Today’s better benchmarks are more architectural, more integrated, less of a “sticking plaster” solution.’

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  • Lindsey Briggs November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    It is refreshing to see so much good sense written in relation to retail signage. As a retail designer & project manager I have vast experience of how retail clients can get it wrong. Most people want to shop efficiently, they do not want to wander around the aisles aimlessly, or find an assistant to ask.
    Too much signage will confuse & distract. We also need to consider people with failing sight & people who find it difficult to look up at overhead signs. Colour coding can assist, but may be a problem for the colour blind. Then there is the old cliché “a picture paints a thousand words”.
    Designers are often frustrated by retail marketing departments who insist on “gilding the lily”, only to ruin the clarity of a well thought out signage scheme.
    Retailers like people to browse & make impulse purchases. If that is at the expense of alienating their regular customers by constantly moving merchandise & an array of superfluous signage, it is counter productive.

  • Sue Turner November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Conversely, if you want to see signing / information design at its very worst, then go to The Royal Festival Hall. It’s confusing. Out of scale. Elusive. And worst of all, designed for the designer and not the users. They should be shot.

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