Losing your way?

When you need something to work and you find out at exactly the time you need it most that it’s not designed at all for what you had in mind, it can become infuriating – especially when the deficient subject is a wayfinding signage scheme, which should guide you effortlessly to your destination, but often doesn’t because it’s been badly designed, poorly located or is just plain wrong.

There’s nothing worse than wandering round a building looking for a particular location, only to miss it because the sign that tells you that you’ve arrived had been sited on a door (and somebody has left the door wide open) or to save money, the sign was made out of a thin rigid material that has now snapped away from its fixings.

You will want the signing to be of a robust material, probably tamperproof, durable, definitely graffiti proof and vandal resistant, but easy to change when needed, easily read, complies with DDA legislation, incorporates the ‘corporate colours’ and won’t deteriorate or look cheap and tatty after a while.

Wayfinding is a specialisation within the scope of signing overall. It’s a specialisation that’s really dangerous to dabble in whether you’re the manufacturer of the components comprising a wayfinding system, or the practitioner who installs them. There are so many factors the end product needs to satisfy – letting any one of them dominate at the expense of another leaves you with the ruin of a wayfinding scheme to deal with.

Signs that relate to generally static chunks of infrastructure, such as Inverness or Penzance, have a life span that’s largely a function of the materials they’re made from. When the weather has done its work, the sign will be replaced, in all likelihood with something pretty much identical. That’s because unless something really unusual happens, Inverness and Penzance will always be where they are now.

Most wayfinding schemes though usually point the way to something that is anything but static. People get promoted. Radiology gets a new machine and moves to a bigger room three floors down. A new chief executive is installed and he’s a medical practice driven animal, so management consultancy is consigned to a new home in a temporary building by the bins. A wayfinding scheme has to be ‘updatable’ to reflect these changes.

Shades of grey
Seriously, just how many shades of grey are there? Try telling that to whoever was responsible for the directory in a London department store I visited. Every little component in the system has been stove enamelled, or painted, in a shade of grey close, but not close enough, to its neighbour. Every time a change was made, a new shade of grey would find its way into the directory.

Eventually, it lost its way completely. As a template for colour variation it worked well. As a wayfinding directory it resembled a thick layer of the Earth’s crust that had been stuck up on the wall. It was further made to look as if the seagulls had been at work as the white text ran into half a dozen typefaces and letter heights. Reading it took twice as long as your eyes had to adjust at every level.

How about the provincial theatre that signed up for wayfinding ‘in character’? No room here for the crisply rendered, get-it‑at‑a-glance quality of a sharply contrasting sans-serif face and unmistakeable din-standard arrows. Try brown lettering on gold anodised aluminium and, as if that’s not enough, make sure the letter is Olde English and forget that it has a lower case too. Oh and by the way, let’s put the signs next to the doors to the auditorium so that when the door is open you can only ‘see’ half the sign. Old scheme NHS – acres of brown Darvic but at least you could read the text quickly.

Thankfully, wayfinding done well is an absolute joy to behold and there’s quite a bit of it around. Airports and railway stations, on the whole, get it right. They spend a small fortune on signing because they’re in the business of herding people from one place to another and – their system would simply grind to an excruciating halt if they didn’t do it well.

The British road traffic signing scheme is just about the best in the world and, let’s face it, we get plenty of time to admire it at close quarters!

Wayfinding done well is a deep design specialisation. It draws upon knowledge of how type works and how things distilled to the barest essence actually function. The very fact that it’s not a discretionary involvement of the user with the sign, but something closer to necessity confers upon it a responsibility to do its job and to do it well.

No one goal in wayfinding is seconded to another. Whether the scheme sets out to counterpoint the architecture that is its host, or to work with it, it must do so in a manner that sits comfortably with its need to direct and inform. Give legibility its head though, and you may have won in the functional stakes, but you’ll also have blighted the venue with the aesthetics of a car crash.

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