Feature: Signage

Published:  April 13, 2011
Sam West
Feature: Signage

Give me a sign

Hospitals can be some of the worst laid out and signposted places in existence. When we’re born it’s as if the world is saying to our tiny infant brains: “Welcome to a lifetime of being surrounded by signs in all their frustrating, flustering, fascinating, boring, impressive, amusing and informative glory.” Still, from the moment we’re wheeled into that nursery, signs become so ubiquitous that it’s easy to dismiss the importance they have in shaping the way that we live. From the purchasing decisions that help mould our identity via the road rules that get us from A to B, to the images that galvanise revolutions, signs never really exist in the background as much as we think they do.

To understand more, it makes sense to talk to the person responsible for educating the sign-writers in my town. John Craddock is the coordinator for Victoria University’s Certificate III in signage. He’s been in the business for 29 years and knows what makes an effective sign. What sort of thing does he teach his students about making signage? “There are many aspects that you need to have in place for a great sign, so it’s difficult to say in a few sentences,” he admits, “but layout and design are the hardest thing to teach students. It helps if you have a passion for design, a critical eye and are observant of great signs that you might see.”

Yes, but what is it that actually makes these signs great? “Signage can convey a mood, a feeling. The use of suitable colours, fonts and design can truly be a work of art, regardless of whether the sign is for a high class event or a temporary sign made with fluorescent colours used to advertise a sale.”

So, keeping an eye open for the signs that actually move you can help you be a better sign-writer, but at the most basic level Craddock says great signage often comes down to legibility. “A good sign needs to be legible, and many aren’t. Just look at some of the billboards around Melbourne,” he says. “Often a design can look great at A4 size, but once enlarged can lose legibility and impact. A good sign also need the message to be broken into major and minor wording, and appropriate emphasis placed on each.”

Project: Lend Lease Hoarding. The communication intention was to inform the public of the park closure while at the same time excite the public about the forthcoming ‘super-park’.

In all his years he says these simple ideas haven’t really changed; what has really evolved has been the technology that gets this signage out onto the streets.

“When I first started in the trade, all those years ago, everything was drawn up by hand with the occasional use of an OHP (overhead projector) to enlarge designs, and of course everything was written with a brush and sometime you’d use Letraset for small indoor signage.

“I was fortunate enough to work with some true craftsmen, people who could use a very basic ‘tick out’ and then write the most beautiful lettering without any reference material.

“Sadly, now there is very little traditional signwriting done, as computer design and vinyl cutting has taken over, but the biggest changes have been the development of large-format digital printers and the range of media that you can print on and the wide range of applications that are now possible. There’s even one that you can apply to brickwork.”

Still, Craddock says technology can be a double-edged sword if it contributes to the wealth of bad design out there. “These days anyone can go and purchase software and a vinyl cutter or digital printer for that matter, and then, without any understanding of layout, set about producing signs with no appeal or legibility.”

Project : Pirrama Park. Deuce Design researched, wrote, planned and designed an interpretive program that includes an interpretive pathway with words and cast remnant objects, poetry steps and historical signage.

Someone who knows all about appeal and legibility is Sophie Tatlow. Along with studio director Bruce Slorach, she runs Deuce Design, a studio that tries to solve design and communication solutions across the design spectrum. What does she think makes a good sign and how does she think living with signs shapes our identity?

“A good sign needs to be interesting and well-designed without being over the top or too much,” says Tatlow. “Signage needs to be noticed for the right reasons, not because they draw attention to themselves for not functioning. Some signage is like public art or gives a building (or place) its personality.

“We need to appreciate the value of good signage in order to improve ‘place’ and identity. Some signage is awful; in fact, probably 50 percent of signage is terrible. I think that a lot of regulation signage is a lot better than the private and brand signage. If you walk down a main street of a capital city, it is the commercial and retail signage that needs to fulfil some kind of ‘style guide’, while most regulation signage is inoffensive, if not boring. It can be invisible.

“Tokyo is a great place to observe when talking about signage and identity. You can spend days looking at city signage and drawing conclusions about identity. Signage and messaging is a very big part of the culture in Tokyo – private, corporate and advertising.”

And what are Tatlow’s favourite signs?

“My favourite signs are either something random and homemade in an obscure location or something that is really well-designed, informative and a bit unexpected. I also love a good map. A good map can take a designer days or weeks to complete and the attention to detail speaks for itself. A good map can save your life!”

Speaking of good maps, Michel Verheem is something of an expert. Since 2006, he has been running ID/Lab, a specialist wayfinding company that focuses on creating legible environments instead of just legible signs. “I am not a designer,” he insists. “For us, the first thing is that a sign needs to work and then we’ll make it pretty. We’ll quite happily make something really ugly that works really well, where most designers focus on beauty.”

Project: The Rocks Market. The Rocks Market cycle signage is a gorilla marketing approach to integrate site-specific wayfinding and directional signage into an historic precinct. Deuce Design sourced a variety of vintage bikes, restoring and creating hand-painted signage to complete the picture.

For Verheem, the beauty is in the legibility and useability.

“We really focus on the science of how people navigate, how they behave when they navigate, what needs to be changed or added to an environment to make their behaviour fit organisational requirements.”

Considering Verheem is an expert on wayfinding, he should be a great person to ask about the idea of a visually overloaded existence and if he thinks textual signs risk overtaking the more stable architectural intentions of many built environments.

“One of the major problems is that too much information is being put into our space,” says Verheem. “The comparison can be if you buy a new piece of equipment with a 500-page manual with no index, you’ll eventually get through it and work the machine if you are extremely smart and patient. But if you get a 25-page manual with highlights, then you’ll be working that machine in half an hour. You can apply that idea to the visual pollution of an urban space or an airport or a hospital. If the information you provide is not specific to the problem you want to solve as a navigator, then it is pollution.”

So what does he think should be done to clean up the pollution? Well, he doesn’t profess to have all the solutions, but one simple step in the right direction would be to get rid of some of those pesky ‘keep left’ signs. Until Verheem explains this to me, I’ve never really thought about how pointless and borderline dangerous ‘keep left’ signs really are.

“Why do I have to have a sign every two and a half kilometres, which says ‘stay to the left unless overtaking’?” he asks. “You could presume that if I have a driver’s licence, then I know to stick to the left. The rest of that information then becomes a waste of space. It is something that I as a driver have to focus on, read, process then decide that I already know it. It’s not going to change our behaviour in any way.” Amen to that.



Thumbnail image: Lend Lease Hoarding. The communication intention of this 400m hoarding by Deuce Design was to inform the public of the park closure while at the same time excite them about the forthcoming ‘super-park’.

All images copyright Deuce Design.

From desktop magazine.

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