In the last decade, the Victoria and Albert (V&A) museum has seen visitor numbers triple thanks to a series of blockbuster exhibitions and the opening of the Exhibition Road Quarter in 2017.
To meet the demands of these visitors — a mix of casual visitors and paying exhibition-goers — London-based design consultancy Dn&co has redesigned the museum’s wayfinding system.
The new system had to be “comprehensive” while also reducing “unnecessary complexity and uncertainty”, Patrick Eley, creative director of Dn&co, says.
Colour was crucial in communicating these “clear messages” to the V&A’s 4 million annual visitors, and Dn&co took a different route to other museums in the re-design.
“Rather than use colour to sub-divide the permanent collection which is free to view, we used colour extensively to highlight paid content,” Eley explains.
The colour scheme will be exhibition-specific and used consistently, from advertisements on public transport to signage at the entry.
This aim of this uniformity is to help visitors get to ticketed exhibitions faster and reduce congestion on the ground floor — it also “protects a core revenue stream that helps keep the permanent galleries free to explore”.
The new system needed a “shelf life of 15 to 20 years” so the design had to be “flexible” and also feel “classic and timeless”. It also needed to be helpful but unobtrusive.
“Striking a balance between being noticed and being ignored is never easy,” Eley adds.
To meet these ambitious goals, Dn&co opted for simplicity. Museum signs were made from black-dyed tulip wood to “transmit a sense of restraint and quality” but be bold enough for visitors to follow.
They also consulted with gallery curators to work out the best places to locate signage in the least obstructive way to either the architecture or the collection.
“The signage is slender and has a minimal footprint so that it took up as little space as possible,” Eley explains.
Eley says that the biggest challenge was in the details; “people require a huge amount of information to navigate such a complex building with confidence and it’s all too easy to overwhelm.”
To ensure the information was “succinct”, they used the V&A’s typeface and created a “typographic and visual hierarchy” with the use of rules, capitalisation as well a new set of custom-drawn icons.
Dn&co also worked with All Points West, a wayfinding consultancy, to ensure that the pathways were signposted intuitively, to “reassure visitors they were still on the right route”.
The re-design was also applied to all hanging, wall-mounted and free-standing signs. Another challenge emerged in this process, as “the fabric of the building is endlessly varied.”
The difficulty of applying a uniform wayfinding system on an irregular space was made more difficult by the architecture.
“Archways between galleries can’t support heavy signs, so we had to construct the hanging signs from a special laminated balsa wood, which look identical but weigh a fraction of a traditionally made sign,” Eley explains.
Meanwhile, the new totems give “ a sense of permanence” but also allow for a “degree of flexibility”. The “custom-made aluminium extrusions” allows panels to be “simply removed, reprinted and replaced when details change”.
The map was re-drawn, with an eye to how it would appear in print as well as across digital platforms. For example, the stairs and lifts align across floors so that the connections are “logical” and do not jump around.
Museum galleries now also have names as well as numbers — appealing to visitors who navigate the space in different ways — so both forms of identification had to be incorporated on the map to prevent the “need for awkward cross-referencing”.
In an effort to make the map more “compact”, Dn&co reduced the copy and redrew the icons. Type sizes, meanwhile, were increased to help legibility.
Dn&co also inverted how colours are traditionally used in museum maps. “Gallery spaces became light within a dark background,” Eley explains, in an attempt to “emphasise the routes through the museum and make it clear what is a solid wall and what is an opening”.
The V&A has over 60,000 items on display. In an effort to “encourage exploration”, the floor numbers have been updated so that more distant galleries appear more “accessible”. For example, on the new directory, the section for ceramics has moved from Level 6 to Level 4.
The map re-design also plays a part in this, as pages have been added to the booklet to “highlight the extent of the V&A’s collection which will change every time the map is reprinted to encourage visitors to roam”, Eley says.
“Our ambition was to create a system that would help visitors explore and navigate the museum confidently, while also encouraging them to go further, particularly on the upper floors, where much of the V&A’s extensive permanent collection is housed.”