I shot the serif

The prime objective of signage may be legibility, but who decided that upper and lower case sans serif was the way forward, and are there new directions designers could be pursuing?

SBHD: The prime objective of signage may be legibility, but who decided that upper and lower case sans serif was the way forward, and are there new directions designers could be pursuing?

The creation of signs – whether for public buildings, travel systems or marketing purposes – forms an integral part of any street’s or building’s make-up. But despite their everyday presence, the principle is low on the priority list of many developers and architects, and the discipline rarely courts excitement or innovative design. It is also an opportunity missed for novel typographic exercises. How often have we seen the same sans serif faces directing us to Slough or to the main exhibition gallery?

Robert Carter of design studio Amalgam and secretary of the Sign Design Society believes that the main reason for unadventurous design in this area is that until recently there were no benchmarks or codes of practice. “The Sign Design Society was established in 1992 for people who worked across the board in signage,” he explains. “We thought it would be useful to establish a forum for long-term projects, to codify the discipline and improve the quality, as many of us had learnt how to do our jobs in our own way by experience.”

Carter, whose clients include the British Council, the Department of Trade and Industry and BAA, lists three main frustrations for designers working in this area. First, signage in construction programmes is considered by many as a low priority in terms of budget and its introduction into the programme. He has found that there is very little chance for the sign designer to interact with the architect and the designer. Second, Carter says many designers and architects are unsure as to which safety regulations they should follow – should it be the British Standards or the European Directive? The third issue is that many sign manufacturers started life as light-engineering companies, and are consequently more concerned with achieving engineering simplicity than approaching the brief from a user’s point of view.

“For many companies, signage and typography aren’t issues,” he says. “Many are happy with poorly cut vinyl lettering.”

Chris Ludlow, director of Henrion Ludlow & Schmidt and chairman of the Sign Design Society, sees that the main criterion governing typographic choices in sign design is legibility. “Is upper and lower case more legible than capital letters? Is serif more legible in certain conditions?” he asks. He agrees with Carter that many developers view signage as an accessory. “Signs are the oil in the machine. To design the right system, you have to put yourself in the position of the user and be consistent otherwise the machine won’t function,” he says.

Neil MacCallum, design director of The Jenkins Group, also sees that the major function of signage is to move people quickly and successfully through places, the result of this fundamental requirement being legibility and appeal to the lowest common denominator. The consequence is that the same typefaces are used repeatedly as a standard. “The type requirements are legibility, the weight available in the type and a sensible balance between legibility and suiting the information,” he explains. “It is difficult to use Helvetica as it is used in so many transport signage systems, so its image is very institutionalised and characterless. Frutiger is a good substitute. For the Buchanan Bus Station in Glasgow we used Franklin Gothic to be different, as it isn’t really trademarked. Sign typography is so limited, with only about four suitable typefaces in this area,” he explains.

Typographer Jonathan Barnbrook believes that sign designers have numerous type options. But he believes that the sign system created by Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir in the early Sixties for the UK motorway system established a British standard which hasn’t been challenged since and, in a way, has become the visual identity for Britain.

“So often, sign designers cater for and to the lowest common denominator,” says Barnbrook, and quotes from Rookledge’s International Handbook of Type Designer: “Calvert and Kinneir were the first advocates of the idea that sans serif upper- and lower-case letters are intrinsically more legible for signage systems, and despite the Road Research Laboratory test results of the late David Kindersley’s all upper-case serif designs proving otherwise, the Kinneir/Calvert alphabet, Transport, was used.”

Barnbrook says that designers often don’t consider the environment in which the sign is to be used. “At the moment there is a move to Europeanise signage, but this doesn’t fit in with British architecture. Signs and their typeface should be sensitive to the context as well as legible,” he says. He also argues for a move away from linear text: “There are different ways of reading signs – for example, catching elements of the word as you’re walking past it. You don’t necessarily have to read the type as a text.”

Pentagram associate partner Justus Oehler also sees that effective sign design must encompass qualities of the environment it is in, but argues that the type has to appeal to the lowest common denominator in order to communicate, in some cases, a possible life-saving message. “A sign is a visual output of an organisation,” he says. “When you are dealing with something like the National Grid you have to convey legibility and danger, and the message has to be instant, but with jobs like gallery signage you can take a few more risks. On our work for London’s National Portrait Gallery we used canvas nailed to a board with type on it, because it worked in that environment, but with the National Grid we produced several hundred signs, which included a lot of danger signs, that were white and square with red lettering.”

For Stephen Doyle, creative director of New York design group Drenttel Doyle, the constraints in this area are good stimuli to come up with something really different. The group has recently been involved in the renaming of the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum in New York.

“Our signage system for the renamed National Design Museum features Styrofoam letters and the museum’s mission statement silk-screened on to the wall and surrounded by a huge frame. The coat rack sign is a coat hanging on the wall with the words `coat rack’ painted on the back. We are planning to do some kind of enormous welcome mat at the front of the museum, which would change the attitude of the person going into a museum in a Baroque building,” says Doyle.

“Sign design is like the opposite of a bug. When bugs are doing their job, they stay hidden so that they won’t get eaten. Signs, on the other hand, must do something so they will get noticed and eaten,” he adds.

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