The Upside of Inside

​Ryan N. Fugler is a former editor of WRAPS magazine. 

Place yourself in an unfamiliar indoor setting. Now cover your eyes, spin around several times and then start walking. Chances are you’re not getting anywhere fast. This is how it can sometimes feel when you don’t have proper directions or assistance when navigating through large, populated areas.

A multi-level hospital, for example, must have adequate communications in place to ensure that its visitors find their desired location. This is a case when interior wayfinding systems are a necessity. Not just any sort of signage, but effective and helpful signage.

Of course, sign makers want to make their offerings stand out. They want to be different, unique and attention-grabbing. However, with wayfinding signage it is important that the functionality of the signage comes first.

“It’s one thing to be different and forward-thinking.  It’s another to be sure you meet the customer’s need,” says Charles J. Kelly, Jr., president of Clarke Systems. “All the creativity in the world isn’t worth anything if the wayfinding program doesn’t get the job done right.”

Shops should consider the sign’s environment, potential challenges, technological add-ons, rules and regulations, and more. If these factors are addressed properly and included in the sign making decisions, then sign shops will demonstrate that they are professionals and consultants in their field.

“Our sign shop customers are the true wayfinding experts,” says Claudine Hedlund-Long, owner, SIGNET America Sign System. “They are the ones sitting down with the end clients and engineering the wayfinding and architectural signage solutions, including ADA and all types of signage.”

Identifying Benefits

Establishing yourself as an expert also means staying in tune with the trends and changes in the market. For instance, a shop would not want to offer a customer an out-of-date, inefficient solution. This is especially true with interior wayfinding signage where sign makers tend to have a little more flexibility with materials and positioning.

“On the interior, we have much more latitude to use printing techniques and materials that wouldn’t otherwise hold up in the exterior environment,” says Mark VanderKlipp, president of Corbin Design. “Also, we have more latitude to create branded environments in tandem with signage—landmark mural walls, specialized lighting effects, the specification and blending of unique materials such as glass, metal, etc.”

In a recent project for the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), Corbin Design dealt with both exterior and interior components of a wayfinding signage system. 

“Much more than a signage standards design, the biggest challenge was the design of the information throughout the campus,” says VanderKlipp.

The full campus spans over seven million square feet and brings together patients, students and visitors. Corbin Design’s intent was to ensure the signage was visible in any context, which included easily recognizable patterns of information using contrast and legibility. Maps, directories and ADA-compliant elements were also part of the overall project. 

“As part of our design process, we work to understand how change is currently managed, and the difficulties our clients’ experience,” says VanderKlipp. “Efficient use of internal staff and/or external fabricators, along with the best use of budgets for maintaining the information, is the goal of our strategy.”

Examples like the OHSU project show that wayfinding systems are a fit in large-scale areas as well as across many different settings.

“Over the years,” explains Julien Aiglon, division manager, SignPro Systems, “we have seen a shift in the usage of interior wayfinding systems from being found solely in office buildings and other professional settings. They are now spreading throughout schools, retail settings and restaurants.”

Some of the reasons for this trend is the versatility in wayfinding components. Wall frames can be used to house virtually any type of printed graphic, and “the ease in changing graphics within the frames has opened up the opportunity to use them as dynamic displays instead of static,” says Aiglon.

Users do not have to worry about time-consuming labor or associated costs when switching out messages. If they have their own printer and a sign frame in place, they can easily make signage changes within a matter of seconds.

“We have noticed a higher demand for solutions accepting inserts that can be printed on, such as paper and plastic, but especially paper inserts for the sign end-user to replace themselves,” says Hedlund-Long.

Furthermore, even the sign configuration itself offers easy-to-transition features. Clarke Systems’ Slatz Capture, for example, “can be used for everything from multi-column directories to ADA compatible office signs.

"Not only the inserts but the sign configuration itself can be changed on-site,” says Kelly.

The true benefit of working with interior wayfinding signage is that there are no environmental factors to consider, therefore there is less worry about damage to the signs. However, there are still challenges to assess.

Jumping Hurdles

“The most important challenge is always safety,” suggests Hedlund-Long. “The sign shop must make sure that all signage is securely installed to avoid any accidents, taking the sign size and weight into consideration.”

Hedlund-Long provides a list of examples for sign professionals to consider when installing interior wayfinding systems.

  • Protruding signs must be installed securely so they do not fall off the wall.
  • With suspended signs, sign shops must take the risk of earthquakes into consideration (especially in California) when installing signs.
  • For pylon signs installed in high traffic areas, be aware that people might trip over the sign or bump into it, potentially causing it to tip over.
  • In wall installation methods, the sign shop must consider the material of the wall and take into consideration that the sign will eventually need to be removed and, will need to be able to do so without damaging the wall.
  • Dealers must make sure not to drill into electricity cables or water pipes behind the wall when installing the signs.

Hanging installations are projects that SignPro deals with extensively. Aiglon suggests that using screws and hardware to mount the signage is not always the best option when dealing with thin walls or cubicles.

“SignPro offers an alternative for customers,” Aiglon says, “providing semi-permanent tape on the back of frames that easily attaches to walls, metals, glass and wood for a steady hold.”

Interior directional signage is unique in that there is a specific set of standards to follow. ADA requirements should always be at the top of mind when entering into a wayfinding project. 

“The rules come first,” states Kelly. “Once you know the federal, state and local rules governing signage in that locale, you can get as creative as the project demands, as long as you keep the regulations in mind.”

ADA requirements should be monitored closely so that sign makers are always up-to-date on the latest set of rules. This includes knowing the processes and materials involved.

“When considering adding ADA elements to an existing system,” says Pnina Kedar Feldman, international sales and business development manager for Vista System. "The sign maker needs to understand the terminology used, learn the rules and regulations that apply, create a list of vendors who can provide the required materials, and finally produce a few prototypes in the workshop to make sure they are ready to offer such a service and product to their customers.” 

An example of using ADA-compliant signage to its full potential comes from SIGNET, as Hedlund-Long explains that “a sign shop purchased six of our TOTEM/SLIM Pedestal Signs and installed them in a mall. This Pedestal Sign is cleverly constructed, mixing two of our systems together: our TOTEM extrusion as the ‘leg’ and our SLIM system as a super-thin sign frame holding a Braille wayfinding floor plan. The height of the pedestal sign and angle of the SLIM sign frame were carefully tailored so that the braille floor map is visible for a person in a wheelchair.”

The intent of ADA features is to meet the needs of those with disabilities, so that the sign is an effective tool for all that use it. VanderKlipp believes this is an essential piece to wayfinding solutions.

“The most important part of this is supporting the needs of those with disabilities while at the same time protecting the interests of our clients,” he says. “We research and share the latest in ADA compliance measures, explain them to our clients and design them into the programs we develop for wayfinding. Keeping up to date on ADA relative to signage is a big ‘value add’ for our clients.”

Advancing Technology

Another valuable component in wayfinding systems is the ability to include digital aspects. Providing video capability, interactivity and illuminated messages can enhance the viewer’s experience.

“While digital will not replace an entire architectural signage package, it is playing an evolving role in interior wayfinding,” says Kelly. “It serves different purposes in different settings. In some places, it serves as the bulletin board, alerting people to timing and locations of meetings.  In others, it becomes a centralized interactive directory, while in waiting rooms digital screen feature educational content related to the business at hand.”

As long as the digital components are helping to convey an effective message, they will be seen as a valuable part of the sign system. But sign makers should be aware of and gauge the intensity of their digital components.

“Depending on the intent, the impact can be great or it can be a distraction,” warns VanderKlipp. “An interactive physician directory or donor feature that helps to manage a great deal of frequently changing information is an effective use of technology. A series of interior signs that overwhelm users with too many options, or worse, outdated and irrelevant content is a problem.”

Ideally, a resourceful and impactful wayfinding system will combine parts of static images and digital components. If there is an opportunity to include digital aspects—such as a touchscreen for department listings—then it makes sense to include it. But if a message is just as easily communicated with a static image, then that’s likely the best (and most affordable) solution.

“Regardless of the use,” says VanderKlipp, “the digital content must be developed in tandem with static content in the environment. Too often digital signage companies tout their capabilities to completely resolve wayfinding for their clients. Simplified, consistent content comes first; then we talk with our clients about how it’s delivered.”

Certainly there are situations when more traditional signage tops digital.

“Despite the shift to digital signage in recent years, it is our estimate that interior signage will remain mostly static,” says Feldman. “It would not make much sense putting a digital sign on an office door or an entrance to the bathroom. Mostly, digital signage is used for large interior spaces as sort of message boards, or as an entertainment feature. Investing in digital signage for every hotel room, corridor or floor, would be a waste of resources that is uncalled for.”

Digital technology is not a new concept in wayfinding. It has, however, picked up steam as another option to enhance a sign’s effectiveness. Along with digital, there have been improvements in backlit capabilities, framing enhancements, color selection and finishing.

“There were plastic signs with paper inserts 25 years ago,” says Kelly. “And sign makers have been using CNC routers for a long time. What is different now are the newer substrates and printing techniques which give the signs a whole new look and adds to the variety of what’s available.”

In the end, what really matters is that the sign system performs at its anticipated level, and that it provides an effective message. Aiglon cites an example of a successful, new system that was installed in a 350,000 square foot warehouse and office space. The project included directories, projecting signs and wall frames to help promote traffic flow and distinguish certain areas within the office.   

“Four directories with custom-sized graphic slots, a directory-like projecting sign and multiple sizes of left-to-right curved wall frames identified personnel in offices and cubicles as well as common areas,” Aiglon says. “Additionally, unique identifiers distinguish departments and business functions, which were congruently featured in the signage. Corresponding PVC cut-outs were installed above the wall frames for offices, lending a 3D appearance and tying the signage together.”

When projects like this one come together so well, it transforms an unfamiliar setting into one that’s incredibly more inviting.