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Giving signage its due respect

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Giving signage its due respect


If you’re of a certain age, you’ll no doubt recall Swedish songsters, Ace of Base’s 1993 hit ‘The Sign’. Melodic(?) though it was, its lyrical insistence that a sign could ‘open up eyes’ was a persuasive assertion.

But signs, alas, are undervalued – even though they play an important role in our everyday lives. They’re part of the fabric of how we navigate the world. And like a good servant, they instinctively know what we’ll need before we do.

Given their undeniable usefulness, when it comes to navigation and wayfinding; it’s easy for property developers, architects, and interior designers to overlook the need for signage.

We want them to take signs more seriously and use them to their full potential.

Form & function

First and foremost, signs are functional. They orientate us in a physical space. They showcase our immediate surroundings anywhere and everywhere we find ourselves. That’s why they’re so important to wayfinding. They provide order and direction.

Signs also provide structure to our experience of a building – entrances, exits, toilets, room numbers and names. And the bigger the building, the greater the number of users, or the more purposes it serves the more important these things become.

Take Harrods, as a prime example. A big part of our brief here was to help visitors find specific areas of the store more easily; to help orientate them across the store’s 1 million square feet.

Although we made sure that all of the right materials were used to ensure new signage matched the store’s decor and styling, it wasn’t just a case of ‘add more signs’. We implemented a new way to navigate the store, and used signage to help convey that story.

Reinforcing trust

It’s clear that signs aren’t there for decoration – even when they’re located in retail stores. Here, one of their primary functions is to cement brands in our daily lives, and reiterate the emotional responses we associate with them.

Branded signs go far beyond the use of a logo or specific typography. Think about our relationships with Nike or even the NHS. Signs, in that respect, foster familiarity – trust, essentially.

However, from an aesthetic standpoint, signs also act as placemaking signifiers. Consider something as seemingly trivial as pedestrian crossing lights. It’s not just a case of ‘red means stop, green means go’.

In the UK, we have a green or red man showing when it’s safe to cross and not safe to cross. However, across the pond, in New York – the same signs display a clear set of verbal instructions ‘Walk’ and ‘Don’t Walk’. And in the German capital, Berlin, the addition of a hat to their green and red men (and his longstanding presence in the once-divided city) makes ‘Ampelmann’ an iconic part of the city’s identity.

It’s these local or individual sentiments; these idiosyncrasies of detail; that make a sign work. While they might stand out on our first encounter, eventually they fade into the background once we’re familiar with a place. Then they remain almost intuitive – symbols that we recognise and rely on. Symbols we can trust.

Cheaper to get right than wrong

Just because signage is one of the least expensive touchpoints a company may use, it doesn’t mean that it should be overlooked. Signage design needs to be taken as seriously as other design disciplines – as discussed in a previous blog – especially when a sign acts as the first touchpoint a customer has with your brand. That experience is so important to get right.

If signage fails to make the impact it needs – if it’s treated as an afterthought – then the chances are that it’ll do more harm than good. It needs to be part of a comprehensive system – a flow – to have meaning and relevance. It needs to complement its environment and yet stand out from it – without being intrusive.

Don’t underestimate the power of a sign. It can do more than just show – it can tell a story too. Good signage is as much about context as it is content.