Signage and Image Development

The design of any space, as my architect friends often reflect, begins with a conception of what will take place there. This concept is not merely functional but experiential as well. Our best architecture pays very close attention to how people use space and responds accordingly. The same can be said for all aspects of design. Good design utilizes every opportunity to enhance the human activity that is its reason for being.

The extension of this fundamental philosophy to wayfinding is the subject of this second article that explores the expanding nature of wayfinding. In the last article (see Sign Business May 2006, page 32), the commentary addressed the importance of continuity of design and content among signage devices deployed as a system. In this installment, signage and wayfinding will be considered in the context of its environment. We will consider the ways in which signage can better relate to the natural, architectural or interior setting in which it is placed. Moreover, this article will explore how the environments, themselves, can communicate wayfinding information.

It would be ideal if each of our wayfinding programs also involved multifaceted design programs that could create a continuous image throughout the entire visual environment. Exterior signage programs could be accompanied by new site or building entries, lighting, landscaping schemes and street furniture. Interior signage systems might also entail compatible new wall and floor coverings, paint and furnishings. If all of these design elements could be conceived and executed at once, as they usually are in new construction, the image of the site or facility could be both consolidated and enhanced.

In most of our past project experiences, however, design programs involving existing sites and buildings are rarely approached comprehensively. In fact, only a select few have involved enough design disciplines, and on such a scale, to be able to transform or enhance institutional identity to any great extent. As such, there is a significant range in the degree to which wayfinding strategies can reflect or interact with the larger visual environment. For the purpose of this analysis, we will generalize these interactions in these ways:

1. Wayfinding can be utilized to overcome an inconsistent environmental identity;
2. It can reflect the cohesive aspects of environmental identity; or
3. The design elements within the environment can become active wayfinding tools.

“One of the biggest factors to the erosion of a cohesive identity is time,” suggested Don Keller, Vice President of Operations at D’Youville College in Buffalo. In addition to his current involvement, Don has worked in many levels of management in a variety of facilities and has seen how identity can slip away in larger institutions. “Management turns over, ideas change and there is often no strong, consistent leadership in the design and management of facilities. This can be seen not only in identity programs but in architectural design overall. The owner, in many cases, does not assume a strong role in the design phase and allows the designer, in any discipline, to dominate and express his own ideas that many times are in conflict with what has preceded. This often creates an identification system that may be costly to maintain or carry on so that, eventually, it gets modified or dropped.”

Many of our wayfinding programs involve existing facilities that are often characterized by a lack of design continuity. History would suggest that as expansion occurs, spaces become renovated or worn out materials replaced, institutional design standards become altered or abandoned. The relationships that once bound architecture, interior design standards, landscape schemes and signage deteriorate and identity becomes localized in certain areas or among one or two disciplines within the overall environment. All too frequently, the result is a disjointed and chaotic visual environment.

As such, the enhancement of image through wayfinding can be particularly difficult in certain situations. For example, urban streetscapes usually include a myriad of “stuff” that needs to be close to the street and which, typically, reflect little continuity of form or style. Light and utility poles, traffic light standards, mailboxes, benches, fire hydrants, bus shelters and an ever-increasing number of safety and regulatory signs provide serious visual competition to even the most dynamic signage system.

Similarly, the image-building potential of interior signage is often challenged in large complexes such as universities or health campuses. In these kinds of spaces, it is common to find multiple generations of different finishes and furnishings that produce a disorganized appearance. In corridor environments that appear confused, disorderly or contradictory, it may be particularly difficult to employ signage to effectively guide visitors or identify important destinations.

There are many reasons why these conditions occur. Most often, there isn’t a current master plan to begin with. Although one may have existed originally, expansion often breeds adaptations that aren’t integrated into a revised plan. Also, the high cost of operating and maintaining large sites and facilities usually does not afford the luxury of integrating architectural and interior renovations and landscape transformations in any comprehensive way. Moreover, the design fees associated with these changes represent an expensive undertaking for most institutions.

Yet, some building owners and managers are becoming more sensitive to the effect of image and that it can be enhanced if the various design disciplines can be coordinated. Mark Mistretta, Principal Landscape Planner at Wendel Duchscherer in Amherst, New York, oversees many streetscape and large site redevelopment projects. “Our clients are becoming more aware of the interdisciplinary aspects of design. Still, the education process is continuous and it remains very easy for them to become distracted from design objectives by short term goals, budgetary restraints and other priorities.”

On the other hand, a signage program can often provide a relatively inexpensive way to achieve some measure of image enhancement. Signage is often a stop-gap–something that can be done with a reasonable budget until more funding becomes available to address site or building image issues in a more meaningful or comprehensive manner. “Signage is an important consideration on all of our institutional and municipal projects,” explains Mistretta. “When compared to the cost of other site improvements, signage has always been an affordable means with which to create unity across a site or along a streetscape.”

In the absence of other wide-sweeping site or building revisions, signage can be utilized as a first step toward rebuilding institutional identity. In these situations, signage often becomes the connecting link in the environment. Because there will likely be considerable competition for attention in the visual environment, it is all the more important for the design of signage to project a uniform identity. The larger the scale of the space being signed, the more important it is that signage has image-connecting power.


New construction projects and major renovations provide the best opportunities to integrate wayfinding into overall site or facility identity. The project architect or landscape architect in charge is usually more than happy to consider signage elements that are consistent with the larger design image of the project. In these situations, the client can be shown in very specific ways how wayfinding is coordinated with the other design disciplines to project a consistent image.

For instance, the reflection of a building’s architectural persona in its signage is a fundamental linkage. Whether that reflection is achieved through the replication of form, materials or color, a harmonious visual association can be achieved between the building(s) and sign elements used to identify it.

“Our first consideration in developing architectural signage is the potential to integrate the building’s design and materials as well as any unique aspects of its natural environment,” indicates Mike Park, a signage consultant in Oceanside, California. “A close relationship among signage, architecture and the setting creates a very sophisticated and elegant identity. It speaks volumes about the self-image of the company or institution and how it wants to relate to the people who visit or work there. It’s all about the image—and the more we can do with signage to enhance it, the better.”

In more expansive urban sites, associations can be made between signage design and streetscape elements such as retaining walls, pavers, light fixtures, railing details, and street furniture. This compatibility not only maximizes identity but it may also contribute to the visual autonomy of an area. This is evident in the images of the Niagara Falls’ Third Street Entertainment District. Here, signage design closely reflected the design of various other streetscape elements in order to help distinguish Third Street from adjacent districts.

The same is true in the interior environment. For example, if the wall covering, floor tile, baseboard and handrails in a particular building employ a consistent color combination, the utilization of these colors in the signage elements will usually help create a very cohesive and reassuring visual environment.

A cohesive environmental design is a decided advantage in the projection of identity.

When signage can be sensitively integrated within an environment that already has a high degree of design compatibility, its image value can be exponential.

The highest level of interaction occurs when the environment speaks to identify itself, its specific destinations or the pathways that are used to route visitors. Although it may not be politically correct to promote this concept in a magazine that speaks to the signage industry, there are, sometimes, elements in the visual environment that speak “louder” and in a more elegant way than a sign.

Site features, due to the massiveness of their scale, are huge contributors to institutional identity. The unique aspects of architecture, massing of landscaping, set-back of buildings, or even species of plantings may contribute more to the identification of a site, and from a greater distance, than can its identification signage. Exterior lighting may often be utilized to dramatically extend this identity in the nighttime streetscape. Site and building entrances will often include enough design “punctuation” from architecture and landscaping so as to clearly identify them as such—sometimes rendering signage as superfluous.

In a corridor setting, architects will often elevate the lighting level at the entry point to a particularly important destination in order to highlight its location. Similarly, the usage of a specific style of lighting fixture can be used to highlight an important pathway. This can also be achieved by varying the intensity of lighting. The design of a corridor may involve an alcove that can draw the visitor’s attention to a particular point much more dramatically than could a sign.

Interior designers will frequently use specific colors to differentiate areas of a building much more visually than is achievable with signage. They may also change the floor or wall covering at a particular entry door in order to underscore its prominence in the corridor environment.

In certain kinds of environments, we have employed photomurals and other environmental graphics to help visitors to better associate to particular destinations. The visitor may not remember that he or she just visited the Diagnostic Imaging Department (especially if he or she can’t read our language), but may more likely remember that 8´ by 12´ mural of a sunset that they saw across the hall from the entry door.

As much as my design colleagues may wish that their efforts spoke enough “wayfinding” to eliminate the need for signs, this is of course not the case. This is not so much due to some shortcoming in their design but, rather, the inability of most of the public to “see” the cues that are provided for them. “Visual education” or any such course of study that would teach us to be more aware and responsive to our environment is not taught in most secondary schools. Only those who choose a career in some area of design are introduced to the relationships in our environment that are meant to convey so much.

Our most frequently encountered problem with respect to cohesive image development in the built environment is the absence of a master plan. Even when our projects have included long term implementation strategies for a particular design discipline, they will rarely include an interface with other design disciplines in a comprehensive fashion. Consequently, the synergistic effect of a singular identity that orchestrates architectural, interior, landscape and wayfinding components largely goes untapped.

Although many building owners may admit to an image problem, they may not be able to articulate why this is so. Worse yet, they are generally unable to translate the problems into a scope of work that can be tackled by a design team. Also, for a variety of reasons, they may be reluctant to consider the problem as a whole that could be addressed comprehensively and with long term strategies. Rather, the trend seems to involve small projects in a lot of different areas—some new landscaping here, new light fixtures there, an architectural renovation of one department’s entry point or new corridor finishes in another.

To be fair, most building owners and facility managers do not have the budget to make these kinds of improvements comprehensively across a site or throughout a large building complex. The fallout of this approach is that each new project may involve different project managers and/or designers with new ideas for approach, style and materials. For example, the corridor identity that is inherent in the finishes used in a 2002 renovation can be quite different from that of a neighboring corridor in 2005. This is the reason why some buildings include such a large vocabulary of building finishes (including sign materials). Although some variety is necessary in the design of large environments, too much will appear haphazard and undermine the projection of a cohesive environmental identity.

Another aspect of this problem is the mechanism for making improvements in the institutional setting. As mentioned, attention and budget dollars are often directed toward “putting out fires” in areas where renovations are due, or some cases, overdue. This forces the facilities manager to maximize the operating budget by dealing with these “hot” projects on a piecemeal basis. This methodology usually requires hiring an interior designer, architect, or some other professional to address each need.

The design approach is often decentralized with the project manager coordinating the efforts of multiple professionals in the design stage. As a result, the interaction of design professionals is frequently limited to the coordination of physical needs. These might involve coordinating the need for power, lighting or the positioning of landscaping materials or building elements so as not to interfere with the placement of a sign, wall sconce or art piece. Rarely are the designers brought into one room to discuss overall design approach and the potential to create a cohesive institutional identity.

I am sure that few signage consultants have been in a position to drive multidiscipline institutional image development. Even if we were, this would be a monumental task given the inherent, fragmented approach to design and image development in larger, existing institutions. Yet, there are strategies that can be applied to make wayfinding, as well as the other visual design disciplines, more relevant to the appearance and function of a large site or facility.

F. Eugene Smith, a friend and colleague of mine for over 25 years, has experience with more design disciplines than anyone else I know and has some good advice for wayfinding system designers. “Even if your potential client is already retaining an architect, interior designer, landscape architect or graphic designer, they still need someone to coordinate and work with the other professions to develop a better, more functional and appropriate solution to their wayfinding problems. If other designers are not initially working with the client, you may feel that calling them in, at appropriate times, will result in a much more effective program. The bottom line is that you need to take a leadership role to insure that the overall function/image is compatible, coordinated and successful.”

The best strategy is awareness building. We routinely educate our clients. Someone has to sow the seed that identity is bigger than any one design discipline but requires the interaction of all of them. They may start to envision the benefits of a master plan for design that coordinates all of the disciplines that help to render overall image. If our client can begin to think more holistically, the interaction of a signage program could become much more integrated within the exterior or interior environment.

This awareness will make it much easier for the wayfinding planner to have dialogue with the owner’s architect, interior designer and other professionals. This will enable a give-and-take where signage can reflect more of the identity reflected in the built environment while various aspects of the other design disciplines can reinforce specific wayfinding strategies.

What would motivate a building owner to consider an overall image master plan? There are three good reasons.

The facility will have a cohesive identity. A master plan could articulate what identity translates into for each of the disciplines involved. This articulation would not simply convey the objectives of each design discipline but also the extent to which they relate to one another. The image/style standards that are inherent in this plan would promote and preserve the identity standards through each incremental improvement.

There would be a plan for implementation. The master plan could include a full list of implementation strategies, cross-referenced by discipline, phased over time and with realistic budgets. The plan could reflect what areas are most in need of renovation and plan for the phased replacement of worn site and building elements. On this basis, not only is the entire implementation visible from the start, budgetary projections can be made for a much longer time frame.

The process will be less costly. Because architectural products, materials and finishes will wear out at different intervals, the plan can capitalize on their known life span and program their eventual replacement as part of the overall implementation. This would maximize the service life of each element. What is more, since design standards would be established at the front end for all aspects of environmental identity, design services would not be required on an ongoing basis. Although the owner may wish to retain procurement or construction management services, the die would generally be cast for what will be built or applied.

From the perspective of the wayfinding designer, as well as the owner, this scenario has great significance. Signage design can be deeply embedded into the built environment—both physically and from an image perspective. Moreover, by virtue of the interaction with the owner’s other consultants, there can be a higher level of wayfinding reinforcement through the sensitive treatments and thoughtful selections made by other project designers. Environmental elements can thus play a greater role in communicating the whereabouts of specific destinations or the pathways to special areas.

Through this kind of interaction, the role of signage design and wayfinding is expanding into a new level of synergy with other design disciplines in overall image development.

(Click here to read Part 1 of this article series.)