Archive | February, 2016

Signage: A few pointers for designers

23 Feb

Signage, the kind that informs the reader in an easily understood, elegant manner through graphics that not only compliments its environment but even adds to it, is an under appreciated art form.

That’s a  pretty loft statement, to be sure, but one that I think is very true.

Let me give you a couple of scenarios to see if they sound familiar to you. This is all in the noble quest of understanding this interesting aspect of graphic design.

Architectural Signage

You are asked to work with an architect for a new building, area or a series of spaces. You find out very quickly that the architect has very set views on what the signage should be. Above all, architects want signage that blends in with the architecture utilizing the same character, colours, shapes and visual toolbox as the constructed environment. Fine. You think, that’s what graphics is all about as well. But hold on. Blend in with the architecture? How much so? Well, often architects think that signage should blend in so well that it’s almost hidden because if it’s too dominant, then it detracts from the architecture. But… (you start trying to figure this out), signage has to be noticeable. It has to be visible so that when people are at key, decision points—junctions or locations where they choose which direction to travel, they need to actually notice the signage in order to obtain that information.

The answer to this, of course, is that both you and the architect are correct. Signage should be compatible and sympathetic with the architecture AND it should be noticeable enough to be easily located for when travellers need to find the information it contains. This is where the art of signage design comes in.

And now for the complete reverse of that last statement…

You’re working with another graphic designer or, say, an industrial designer and the issue is now all about what the signage should look like. (You just finished the aforementioned battle to create signage that people will actually see, so you know how to argue against signage that blends in too much). The  issue now is not just what colour the panels, fonts, backgrounds, arrows and other identifiers are, but also:

  • What is the shape of the signage? Square, rectangular, rounded corners, or some other shape?
  • How large is the text? How far back does it need to be read from? (Just to mention, I’ve developed readability studies and formulas for figuring this out, however, that’s my “secret sauce” that is, as they say, “proprietary”).
  • What does the signage structure look like and what is it made from (materials, hardware, etc.)?
  • How long will the signage hold up before it needs maintenance or replacing?

So, the problem might now be working with another designer who wants to place too much attention on the signage, so much so that it may not fit the environment any more. An example would be a structure that is overly complicated, or is made from materials or colours that aren’t appropriate for where the signage will go. Now, oddly enough, you’ve taken the architect’s position from earlier and you have to argue that signage has to be a part of the surroundings and not stand out overtly. The “character” of the signage has to communicate with the user so that it speaks in the same language as the architecture or the environment.

You may have seen signage that is just simply overdone. Colours, textures, materials, structural components, ornamental touches, everything is just too much, too loud, (and I really hate to say this, but…) just too amateurish. There, I’ve said it. Nothing says “I’m new at graphic design and I really want to create something that will pronounce me ‘Designer of the Century” more than designs that attempt to make an artistic statement that have more to do with being noticed as a graphic designer than trying to help your client provide clear, elegant way-finding. (Sorry if this sounds elitist, but to be honest, I’ve done this in some ways early on in my career, so I’ve been just as guilty. It’s now that I can look back on a career full of dozens of solutions and be a bit more critical).

The answer to the question of how much to put into signage should be rather self-evident by this point. Signage is information. People who use signage only need enough information for what they are seeking. The vocabulary of the panels, fonts, colours, structures, etc., should be just enough to communicate the messages in a manner that is in keeping with the rest of the environment. Anything more than that is just fanciful ornamentation. Are there times when signage might need to stand out and become a bit of an attraction on its own? Absolutely. I can think of many examples where signage was intended to  make a stand-out, visual statement to make it clear to the user that they had arrived at some important destination. Totally fair, but one shouldn’t confuse way-finding signage with destination signage. If you have the challenge to create a destination sign for Disney’s Tomorrowland, you can be forgiven for getting a bit more fanciful than directional signage, say, for a hospital.

Human label-maker

Then, there’s one more example. This one involves clients (hopefully you haven’t run into this type of client). (All you clients out there, please skip to the ending, I’d hate to have you see yourself reflected here). This type of client believes that signage is what you buy at the dollar store (but for some reason one can never find the sign that says exactly what’s needed). This client will be identified by a lot of dismissive hand-waving while saying things like “just make a sign over there that tells people where to go.” The attitude is that you have some magic machine and can start pumping out signage in the “standard,” “default” setting, like you are a human label-maker. Absolutely be wary of this situation because there’s a great possibility that without understanding what’s involved, this type of client will be the one that will wait until you’ve manufactured and installed a number of signs before asking for changes in information, size, colour, etc. Education is the key. Information. Education. Raising awareness. (Make them notice!). Make sure this client understands all aspects of the contract and approves some full-size mockup signs. Also, make sure the client is fully informed about the costs of signage development, fabrication and installation.

Sorry for describing this type of client as a bit of a problem, but when you encounter this person, believe me, your work will be cut out for you. In order to successfully develop signage that will work even at the most basic level (not to mention actually getting paid for the amount of work it really takes), you’ll have to spend time substantial time educating your client. And, when I say “educating” what I mean is bringing them up to speed on the fact that way-finding development requires someone who has the training, skill and talent; the final product has to be clear and understandable; materials have to be robust to hold up to everyday use such as cleansers, rogue vacuum cleaners and casual (and intentional) vandalism; structural systems have to be sturdy and easily installable; all information has to be planned, locations and messages have to be scheduled and approved; and other considerations such as safety have to be incorporated. Amazingly, it’s a bit of a surprise to some clients that it actually is someone’s job to think of all that. Oh yes, it’s usually a revelation that most signage is custom, one-of-a-kind design work, and can’t be found “off the rack.”

Okay, that’s the end of this rant. And here I didn’t even get to my pun about the title of this blog—”pointers”—because my original intention was to talk about where arrows go on signage. Left side of the signs? Right side? A bit of both? That’ll be the topic of a future blog.

“Signs, Signs, Everywhere there’s signs.
Blocking out the scenery. Breaking my mind.
Do this! Don’t do that! Can’t you read the signs?”
— Five Man Electrical Band, “Signs”