New Direction

New legislation has lead to a rethink in sign design: it now has to be consistent and accessible to all. Sara Manuelli looks at designers’ solutions.

Public signing has been the safe domain of the information designer since the 1960s. But recent European regulations and the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act, plus changes in technology, mean a whole new challenge in its design and application.

When Citigate Lloyd Northover was asked to review Railtrack’s identity in 1996, and design wayfinding signage and station icons in 1999, the consultancy faced a whole set of new requirements. “Signing strategy has evolved,” says Jim Northover, CLN vice-chairman. “But since British Rail’s identity was introduced in the early 1960s, there had been no major changes. We needed to bring it up to date.

“The introduction of plasma screens on which to display information, the European regulations that require that signage uses white typography on a blue background, and, of course, the Disability Discrimination Act have all raised issues of access and legibility.”

A new guide to inclusive signage out this month, The Sign Design Guide, by Peter Barker and June Fraser, tackles how to make signing accessible to all and, in particular, the blind and partially sighted people. The only one of its kind in the UK, it aims to provide a blueprint for the creation of effective and consistent signs, while meeting the requirements of the DDA. A further part of the Act, covering physical changes to premises, comes into force in 2004. All forms of signage will then fall under the Act.

According to Fraser, the four basic principles in sign design are:

Signs should be used only when necessary.

Sign location should be part of the process of planning the building and the environment.

Messages should be short, simple and easily understood.

Signs should be consistent, using prescribed typefaces, colours and contrast.

A collaborative venture between The Sign Design Society and The Joint Mobility Unit, the guide maps out how to make a public building accessible, from the use of colour and contrast for maximum legibility, to use of Braille, embossed information and audible signage. Directed at designers, sign manufacturers and access officers, it aims to become a point of reference for the future.

The profession seems to be changing, too. While signage used to be the domain of graphic designers and 3D specialists, now a small band of sign consultants are making a mark.

These people – such as Alex Wood, who handled signs at London’s Tate Modern – are effectively project managers. But it is their job to interpret the concept created by the designer or architect and liaise with the contractors and craftworkers involved in realising the scheme.

The Sign Design Guide, by Peter Barker and June Fraser, is jointly published by The Royal Institute for the Blind, The Sign Design Society and the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, priced at £20.

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