Signal failure

Everyone has anecdotes on signage leading them up the garden path. Why do our sign systems fail us, asks Jim Northover. Jim Northover is vice-chairman of Lloyd Northover Citigate and a director of INCA, International Consultants for Airports.

I recently visited a London hospital, something I had not done for a long while. Perhaps because I was trying to find my way quickly round the labyrinth of corridors, or maybe because I’m a designer, and professionally sensitised to these matters, I rapidly became bewildered by the signing.

I marvelled at the friendliness and efficiency of the staff, but was appalled at the degradation of the signing, the Sellotaped notices and the stop-gap directions which belied the undoubted proficiency of the medical staff.

As designers we spend hours of time and talent on programmes to help people, but through poor maintenance, inflexibility and lack of investment, our good intentions are often dashed.

Nowhere is this trend more apparent than when travelling. Like hospital visits, travel ranks high on the anxiety rating. When travelling, normally rational and laid-back individuals are reduced to hypertense wrecks. Even the day-to-day driving experience can be frustrated by poor sign maintenance. Where I live, the guy who won the contract for the Department of Transport sign decals must have been using shoddy materials, as missing letters have now reduced traditional English village names to stuttering and incoherent monosyllables.

Of course, these are not the only problems we encounter. Over-signing is common enough. Bauhaus-inspired ideology dictates, quite rightly, that less is more, but so often we are given information we do not need, or at least not all at once. Orientation is immensely important – to know where you are is the first base for getting to where you want to be. Graphic designers are often too quick to resort to verbal messages, supported by pictograms to do everything. This may be partly because of their training and partly because they do not work closely enough with other disciplines. Space, colour, form and material can all be used in the environment to guide people.

Often, by the time the signing designer is brought into the equation it’s too late. In part, this may be our own fault. We need to persuade clients that signing should be up-front, strategically conceived and fundamental to operational performance. Bad signing can cost airlines and train and bus operators real money.

Providing information is increasingly complex. It is therefore vital that we prioritise the messages and integrate the communications channels (signs, interactive displays, information points and PA systems) to ensure optimal impact and effectiveness.

Interfaces between different modes of transport create their own problems. Transferring from a plane to a taxi or a train to a bus can often force the traveller to adapt to a different sign language and tone of voice. The fragmentation of the UK’s transport system has exacerbated the situation, with each new operator introducing yet another layer of signing on those of the previous management. In some instances, signage is taking on an archaeological dimension. You can spot the closely spaced Swiss sans serif of the Sixties, overlaid by the late-Seventies condensed letter-spaced caps, in turn superseded by the Post-Modern typography of the Eighties, and so on.

Of course, there will always be a need for change, and so flexibility is a fundamental with any signing system, but too often changes in signing design are a glib response to corporate ownership rather than communication needs.

On one level, we know there are intrinsic difficulties with signing. Some people, with all their facilities intact, are “sign blind”. Many of us regularly confuse left and right and are unable to read plans. In addition, we can be colour-blind, monolingual, partially sighted and physically incapacitated in some way. The pressure to take account of all these factors in signing is necessary, but inevitably introduces conflicts into the design brief.

When coupled with a client’s desire to reflect a corporate presence through identity, the task takes on a more complex dimension. For many businesses, signing also represents the most costly aspect of an identity programme, given that much printed material is relatively ephemeral and electronic media can be updated instantly.

This is likely to mean that companies will want to get the best return they can in image terms from their investment in signing. For those companies in the transport sector, this will often mean using signage essentially to advertise their brand.

The development of cohesive signing systems has to be the responsibility of some coordinating body which needs to arbitrate between competing clamours for attention by the operators. Airport and rail terminal managers need pretty resilient strategies to ensure that the interests of the traveller are not lost in the fight for attention.

In the post-privatisation era this represents a huge challenge. The integrated signing system for all modes of land transport – bus, taxi, light rail and metro – which Lloyd Northover Citigate is now developing in Singapore brings into focus all the conflicting aspects when different operators have to work within a single system.

In time I believe there will be more calls for more flexible, integrated transport signing systems which are more focused on the needs of travellers and those who serve them. Ultimately, this will also mean devoting more attention to the long-term maintenance and management of signing programmes.

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