Signage is the thing you’re least likely to notice in the impressive former Bankside power station’s Turbine Hall that forms the ramped entrance to London’s Tate Modern. Dominated by the massive, metal sculptures of French octogenarian Louise Bourgeois, the space has been likened to a cathedral for the way it takes your eye up. But as you move towards the galleries, a sign system kicks in at a more “human” level to guide you through the building.
Wolff Olins’ identity for the new Bankside arts venue inevitably figures in many of the signs, but the consultancy was not responsible for the implementation of the signage system across a range of media, including glass and stone. That was the job of Alex Wood, operating under the made-up name Innes Sutherland and a member of a rare, but growing breed of specialist sign consultants.
Of her role at Tate Modern, Wood says, “They call me the sign police.” But the role involves acting as interpreter between designer – in this case Wolff Olins and to an extent architect Herzog de Meuron – and the sign manufacturers she brings in. She also runs the project in terms of both scheduling and budget.
She points up “wayfinding” as key to the job, particularly at Tate Modern, where the signs have to compete with art. “It was quite a challenge. I would have preferred to put directions at the end of each concourse,” she says. “But the Tate wanted the space for art.” She describes the result as a compromise, conceding that “visitors have to enjoy theexperience”.
Designing a clear and functional wayfinding system requires experience and knowledge of the “natural rules” of human behaviour, she maintains. “I think I’ve been born with a very good eye,” she adds, “though I can’t draw or sketch. I’m also good at understanding and interpreting a brief.”
Wood owes her interest in signs largely to her heritage. In the 1960s her father John became involved in the business, eventually setting up his own firm, Wood & Wood. Best known in design for its long collaboration with Pentagram – John Wood was at school with founder partner Alan Fletcher – the company was design aware from the start, before it was fashionable among suppliers to display design credentials.
Alex Wood first got involved in the family business at the age of 15, helping out in the office. But she vowed then she’d never work there. On leaving school, she took to travelling before joining builder John Lelliot as a secretary. Her secretarial career then took her into advertising, to BSB Dorland, working largely with DIY retailer B&Q. She puts her eventual promotion to account executive down to the fact she got on with the account director.
But it wasn’t long before she found herself back at Wood & Wood. Two experiences there have helped to shape her career thereafter. First, having always thrown in sign design for free as part of its offer, the company set up a separate service, Sign Design Partnership, headed by Richard Conn, which became integrated into the company during recession.
Second, in the 1990s, Wood & Wood set up Design Systems, which Alex Wood’s brother Jaimie asked her to run. It developed a series of “systems”, such as the QLine queue management system designed by the then Pentagram partner Kenneth Grange for Barclays Bank.
Wood was “thrown in at the deep end”, she says, working on the design development, sales, marketing, manufacturing at Wood & Wood’s Exeter factory and project management. The venture proved to be a great success, with turnover in the first year of around £250 000, and investment was ploughed back into the business to create niche designs.
A shift towards brewery work, when father Wood decided to revisit his roots at Watney Mann, brought projects for the likes of Brains and Green King, and Wood became involved. Then there was public sector work, such as a £2m job to create signs for London’s Royal Parks, and projects for mobile phone network One 2 One and Granada motorway services.
Wood’s involvement in the family business had been in sales and design management. When she left in 1996 after a “difference of opinion” with her father about the way the company was going, she felt she was “a jack of all trades and master of none”. She again swore she’d never work with signs again.
She realised she’d always worked with designers, especially in graphics, and always had an appreciation of corporate identity. Her aim when she went solo was to help graphic designers market themselves, and she spent seven months with London group Vivid.
But she was inevitably drawn back to signs. At Wood & Wood she’d worked on the Canary Wharf complex in London Docklands, initially with Pentagram partner David Hillman, following through with the project after he resigned the job. When she went solo, Canary Wharf vice-president of retail Camille Waxer asked her in to help with signs for the development’s new Canada Square retail complex.
Wood owes her involvement with the Tate to graphic designer Lucy Holmes, with whom she shares an office. Holmes had worked for the Tate for some time and recommended Wood to Tate Modern head of visitor services Adrian Hardwick. Architect Herzog & de Meuron didn’t want signs in the building, and her role was made easier by having Hardwick as a champion, she says. She prides herself on going for minimal signage anyway – which suits the architecture.
She won the Tate Modern job on a simple principle, she maintains: her attitude to adding mark-ups to sign contractors’ prices. “On a contract of any size, the construction company puts signs into its tender. At the tendering stage, it has no idea what the signs will look like and they are the last thing to go up in a building. Signs at Tate Modern, for example, involve posters, sign-writing and sand-blasting into glass, vinyl and metal. They can give a licence to print money,” she says. “A sign contractor contracts out [the making] and puts a huge mark up on it. I work on a fee basis and don’t put on any mark-ups or work with a budget.”
She promised the Tate: “I will save money, but it will work”. She has achieved this – for £150 000, including fees, against an estimate of £200 000 – by buying direct from the makers rather than from signage contractors.
Now resigned to a career in signs, Wood is trying to grow her business, and is working for retail group John Lewis and London’s South Bank, among others. She is not the only sign consultant around – she mentions Elizabeth Burney-Jones as one of a few others – but she perceives increasing scope for her skills.
“Winning the Tate Modern project has given me direction,” she says. One direction is repeat work, and she has been asked to look at signs for another Tate venue – Tate Liverpool.