Leading by the nose

Signs you smell, hear and touch can be just as valuable as visual signage, believes Alison Pearce

The mention of anything to do with subliminal communication immediately makes most people feel slightly on edge. It is a similar uneasy feeling brought about by knowing your details are being held on a central computer – you are never quite sure of the motives of those in control of the information. Commercially manipulative forms of subliminal messages, such as advertising clips introduced into television programs and cinema films, have been outlawed.

But in most cases the messages we are inadvertently picking up are relatively harmless. The rhythm of music played while we shop, for instance, is manipulated to control how long and at what rate we browse while shopping. If we hear a relatively fast piece of music we move through the store more quickly; slower tunes encourage us to linger.

I believe subliminal signage can be used to positive effect within the built environment to aid orientation. Take the example of a water pool or fountain – not only is it a sight to be enjoyed and remembered, but the surrounding air feels more humid and smells fresher. And the sound of a fountain, which can carry considerable distances, can also act as a reference point. When combined, all these sensorial messages help us to orientate ourselves within a space. At the London Brent Cross Shopping Centre, the water fountain acts as both a meeting point and a beacon by which to navigate.

Clever use of construction materials and the subtle use of colour and texture on wall and floor surfaces can enliven an area and help to reinforce and prioritise spaces, directing pedestrian flow to the advantage of both the director and directed. Branches of Marks & Spencer, for example, use differing floor materials to define space on the shop floor. A “runway” is identified by a hard surface through the middle of the store to direct people to the heart of – and through – the shop; the opportunity to browse is given on areas of carpet to either side of the “runway”. There are no written signs, but the subliminal message works. The store achieves its objective of moving people around the store quickly, and people heading for a particular area of the shop are kept apart from the browsers, reducing potential clashes and frustration.

Outside in the high street, delineation of materials can help people orientate themselves in their surroundings without the need for written signage. I recently visited the headquarters building at Bristol Royal Society for the Blind (BRSB). As a new building specifically for BRSB, the architect (Bristol’s Alec French Partnership) has paid particular attention to the materials used in the external grounds. Pedestrian areas are defined in sandstone colour paving slabs which contrast with the dark grey Tarmac areas of car park. The front entrance path is defined by a strip of contrasting grey paving slab from the street. At the rear of the building, a small pool with a fountain plays a dual role: for visitors by car it forms part of an interesting landscape, but for the visually impaired its strategic location near the rear entrance door means that it acts as an audible beacon.

Another sensory delight is in the choice of landscaping. Priority has been given to plants such as lavender for its strong aromatic qualities. The perfume will become a memorable feature as you enter the grounds, and as the plants mature the scent will reach the street on the approach to the building.

If these attractive landscaping solutions offering helpful sensorial messages can be provided in one building to ease the lives of visually impaired people, just think how we would all benefit from this approach in town centres.

Having been invited to take part in a recent Design Week exercise (Streets Ahead, DW supplement April 1995), I joined a team of professionals looking at the overall design of London’s Oxford Street – from Oxford Circus to St Giles Circus. As we worked on the project it became apparent that on exiting the Tube it is difficult to orientate yourself without looking at street signs. The difficulty is compounded for foreign visitors, older people or those with poor sight. As an alternative to written directions, which would only add to the overwhelming array of shop signage, directions could be reinforced through the use of paving materials.

A direct approach to the problem of orientation on leaving the Tube would be to introduce a symbol depicting “north” in a paving slab at the exits. This symbol could be of integral design and would clearly help those intent on using a map! A more subtle approach involves the choice of pavement surface along the length of the main street and at the Tube exit – for example, a clear hierarchy in the size and colour of paving slabs would provide a key to the main shopping street, while smaller slabs could identify the borders of lesser streets. The paving slabs here are smaller than average, and their mid-grey colouring offers poor contrast with the road, while in neighbouring Regent Street paving slabs contrast well with the road surface. This variation sets up a hierarchy of streets, with Regent Street appearing superior.

To redress the balance in favour of Oxford Street, the paving would have to be replaced with larger, lighter-coloured slabs. The colour would serve the dual purpose of transforming the dull appearance of the area and contrasting better with the road surface. The surface would also be smoother for pedestrians, prams and wheelchairs. Small square sets are already being used to identify dropped curbs for prams and wheelchair users, and are equally useful for those delivering heavy goods or pulling shopping trolleys.

The Oxford Street exercise also touched on improvements to the quality of the area by re-routing some of the current traffic. Suggestions included pedestrianisation – thereby creating opportunities for public seating and planting – and a daily flower market, with the profusion of colour and perfume acting as a point of reference for visitors and an area for relaxation.

Although these proposals would require a co-ordinated approach by a number of corporate bodies, they are an example of how the implementation of a subliminal, multi-sensory design solution could help people, minimising confusion and alleviating anxiety. Each of the suggestions forms a sensorial reference chosen for its individual properties. Together they form a subliminal masterplan to delight the senses and transcend the barriers of language.m

Alison Pearce is part of DesignAge, an action research programme based at the Royal College of Art which looks into the design issues arising from the burgeoning population of people over 50 years of age.

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