On the fly

Heathrow Airport already deals with more passengers than it was ever designed for – so how will the signage system cope when capacity is increased further? Scott Billings finds out how BAA plans to accommodate extra passengers and increasingly oppressive

‘HEATHROW is thought to be the most complex people-moving environment in the world, including major cities,’ says Mike Wolff, group wayfinding design technical leader for the airport’s owner BAA, and gatekeeper of its weighty tome of signage standards. He delivers this statement half in awe of the task at hand and half in boast of the achievement of making it work. The system of information and wayfinding design that unifies the vast complex of termini and interchanges has to manage almost 70 million passengers annually, in a facility originally intended to handle just 45 million. As if this weren’t strain enough, capacity for up to 30 million more passengers annually will be added when Terminal 5 opens in March next year.

Although T5 is designated as a BAA ‘mega project’, Wolff is keen to point out that it must still sit as part of a whole system and not as a standalone entity. In wayfinding and signage terms, this means that the BAA bible of standards remains sacrosanct, but there are lessons to be learnt nonetheless. ‘You need to pay very close attention to the original architecture, which has not always been that successful in the past. Stansted [Airport], although a great building, is not as flexible for wayfinding as it needs to be, because the “structural trees” can’t be moved. We’ve learnt a lot from that for T5,’ says Wolff.

The task of marshalling the wayfinding scheme for the Richard Rogers Partnership-designed terminal lies with Rachel Oliver, T5 wayfinding design technical leader. ‘We have tried to look at the journey and at what information people need at any one point, so that we’re not over-delivering information, which can be just as big a problem as under-delivering,’ she says.

Of the scheme’s new elements, the most visually arresting are likely to be the huge 6m to 10m orientation ‘beacons’ that will act as homing points along the building’s long sightlines. A strong west-to-east alignment of the space is designed to smooth the check-in process so that passengers need not zigzag back and forth as they move through an increasingly onerous airport procedure. To improve the system’s overall flexibility, as well as minimise physical and visual clutter, information signs will be built ‘into the fabric of the building’ using interchangeable slots in the walls. And despite some contention on the issue, the terminal will retain the single language approach to signage because, says Oliver, English is the international language of travel, already used by other airports as their second language.

In any case, the design guidelines already offer a veritable pick-and-mix selection of more than 100 carefully developed ‘universal language’ pictograms that will be applied throughout. And information that does demand text will be presented in a new typeface, installed for the first time at T5. The existing serif font BAA Bembo is to be dropped in favour of a version of the sans serif Frutiger, specially re-cut to fit the tramlines of BAA sign boxes. ‘It needed to be re-cut from the original or else we would have had letters flying into each other,’ explains Wolff.

But what won’t change at T5 is BAA’s distinctive black and yellow signage colour palette, despite some internal debate over its continued use. In fact, it is a scheme now deemed so iconic by BAA head of information design Nigel Clarke that, working with Loewy, he is taking the brand equity and spinning it into a range of travel products such as alarm clocks and playing cards. Considered garish by some, the black and yellow combination apparently offers the highest contrast colour pairing beyond straight monochrome. ‘Black and white can suffer from glare and is fairly anaemic as a system,’ explains Wolff. ‘There’s a lot of debate about whether signage should be dark on light or vice-versa. In Scandinavia, they do lots of light on dark, which is nice aesthetically, but it’s also quite recessive in a busy environment like Heathrow.’

Busy indeed. And with air travel growing at 5 per cent each year, Gatwick regularly busting at the seams and security checks an increasingly complicated procedure, delivering the right information to passengers at the right time is paramount, just to keep the whole circus rolling along. In information design, and in airports like nowhere else, the more effective the system the more invisible it is to its users. Or, as Wolff says, when explaining the efficacy of his pictograms, ‘all the psychology of great graphic design is needed to understand how these things work at a very simple level.’

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