Direct method

Clare Dowdy looks at improvements being made to London’s South Bank’s signage

There can be few urban areas so dissected than London’s South Bank. Should it have a roof? Above-ground walkways or access at ground level? More green spaces or concrete jungle? And given the amount of graphic noise from builders’ hoardings and ad hoc café signs, not to mention the South Bank’s multitude of buildings and lack of a comprehensive signage system, it’s surprising more people don’t get lost. Part of this chopping and changing has reflected the switches in responsibility for the area. Once under the auspices of the Greater London Council, the South Bank was left without a natural manager between 1986 and 1994. Then the South Bank Employers’ Group, a collection of the major organisations in the area, stepped in with a vested interest in making the place more accessible. Things started to look altogether clearer with the introduction of Lifschutz Davidson’s scheme in 1997. As part of its brief, it came up with a wayfinding system, which was turned into reality by CDT Design and Henrion Ludlow Schmidt. This covers the stretch from Lambeth Bridge to the Oxo Tower, so has to contend with signage from attractions as diverse as the London Eye, the South Bank Book Market and the Hungerford Bridge Millennium Project. Under Lifschutz Davidson’s plans, out went the bulky, multicoloured signposts in favour of a tasteful, svelte design. These signposts, which were increased to 44 last year, are based on 1951 Festival of Britain skylons, for anyone who remembers that far back. As signs, they work well. Paul Lincoln, marketing director of SBEG, says they allow any number of angles to be pointed out off the pole – a directional advantage over a sign system based on right angles. Some signs are obscured by trees, but SBEG went to some trouble to plant 150 of them to make the place nicer, so it would be churlish to criticise the foliage. And their clear graphics make them much more legible than the old rainbow signs, one of which lurks forgotten near the car park for the London Eye. As well as the signposts, SBEG has installed a host of banners and 3D event structures, numbering 66 and 24 respectively. Although e e not strictly signage, they both go some way to improving wayfinding and creating a branded environment. SBEG has run a couple of competitions for banner design, the fruits of which run along the road behind the river. They’re certainly colourful, but it’s unclear whether they contribute to a coherent brand message. Lincoln says it’s probably time there was another competition for the next generation of banner designs. The imaginatively named event structures, on the other hand, do serve an obvious purpose. Attached to their sides, posters show events going on along the length of the river bank. However, these posters (at least those not covered by glass) tend toward tearing, and many are in bad repair. The South Bank receives nine million visitors a year, and 80 per cent of them arrive not along the river, but from behind, via Waterloo Station. This approach gives a very different impression of the area, and Lincoln is the first to admit it’s not wholly favourable. Indeed, the first view visitors get of the South Bank is of the backs of the major buildings. The SBEG has at least done something about the gruesome passageway that was Sutton Walk. Now, this walkway has art in the shape of a wall installation designed as a wall, which lights up at night. Alberto Duman photographed the existing wall and with the help of McCormac Jamieson Prichard Architects, mounted the photograph on to glass, and then on to the wall itself. Opposite, there’s a monolith which reacts to people as they walk past at night. New graphics also turn up on the bus system that’s recently been introduced. Tasteful line drawings of the river bank’s major attractions run along the side of the buses, and feature on the posters by Mannion Design. There are still pockets of visual chaos, particularly the Lambeth Bridge end of things. But SBEG can’t be held responsible for that. Builders and boat cruises all make their unique contribution, and even the National Theatre has its own banners up outside. But in general things continue to get better. Whether fewer visitors are getting lost is more difficult to gauge. At the moment SBEG measures the success of the signage scheme on the number of complaints, though Lincoln admits it ought to be evaluated properly. In the meantime, at least the local authorities are being offered some help on their own signage issues: SBEG is publishing a ‘street-scapes’ design guide for them. Time will tell if it succeeds. Long gone are the days when all signs had to do was point the way to something or somewhere. Today clients expect to get much more out them. Signage has three distinct functions: wayfinding, marketing and brand reinforcement. The wayfinding aspect is the most obvious. Someone knowing what they want to find will rely on a signing system to get them there. This is simply answering a need: toilets, centre manager’s office, exit. These kinds of sign are often connected with statutory requirements, or, as in the example of centre manager’s office, hardly ever used. They do, however, need to be functional and unambiguous. In a commercial environment, however, we need to help people find areas they don’t know about that will create more income. This is where marketing comes in. Just like any other marketing operation, it must create awareness of the offer, make people believe they need it, and show them the way there, all in one sign. This is where the skill of the designer comes in, to create clear, intriguing and exciting messages to encourage people to change their mind and go somewhere new. It might be for a cup of coffee, a n exhibition or a film. But whatever the destination, the same principle is always true: make people aware, make them want it and show them how to get there. The third aspect, brand reinforcement, is frequently overdone. Just as in any presentation, clients can be tempted to splash logos and corporate messages everywhere, but this can obstruct the more important messages of wayfinding and marketing. After all, do we believe that a shopping centre visitor or cinema-goer will forget where they are if they are not reminded every 60 seconds? Too much branding on signs often shows a lack of self-confidence or sheer vanity on the part of the owner or operator. Just choosing a corporate colour or motif is usually enough to reinforce a brand, without recourse to less subtle methods. By John Rushton, managing director of Small Back Room The basic principles of signage é Establish how many people are first-time visitors to the destination, and consider their emotional and mental condition: are they relaxed or anxious? é Use large-scale icons and landmarks to aid orientation é Design map directories individually for each situation – they cannot be standardised. And they need to be understood by all, not just the super-intelligent é Use colour-coding to reinforce a message, aid understanding and differentiate between floors, zones and uses é Prioritise signs – some are more important than others é Limit messages to two per sign if possible é Use space generously é Use type that is large enough to read at a distance é Graphic symbols are good, but don’t try to invent new ones By John Burrows, director of Burrows Cave International, a multidisciplinary architectural practice which has designed signage programmes for shopping and entertainment centres

Latest articles

What to do and see at Designjunction 2018

From 20-23 September, London’s Designjunction takes place on the South of the River Thames, and will see installations, exhibitions, talks and its well-known fair spread across three venues including Doon