Signage Advice from Zoos

July 1, 2007

Enhance any occupant or visitor experience in your facility with the lessons learned about wayfinding from zoos

When man communes with nature, specifically the flora and fauna of a zoo, the experience should be one that awes and inspires - an adventure of discovery that flows from beginning to end. Such expectations, however, don't just happen, even though they are made to appear so (particularly when a well-defined wayfinding and signage plan eases the way). Although zoo signage might appear to be unique in its exploration-based philosophy, there are many essential principles that can easily and subtly guide people throughout an office or a retail, healthcare, or educational environment.

1. Begin at the beginning.
In a perfect world, every element of every project would be an essential consideration during the planning phase. While it's easy to focus on signage because it's tangible, a circulation analysis to determine primary and secondary routes is key to success. That may seem apparent in a zoo, where visitors are encouraged to relax and meander, but a more intuitive circulation plan can employ other design elements or landmarks to direct people flow. "There are a lot of layers [in] wayfinding, and signage is only one of the tools we use," says Jeff Frank, senior designer at Traverse City, MI-based Corbin Design.

Frank, who was formerly the in-house signage designer at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, points to the importance of architecture, interiors, and lighting in helping to orient and navigate an individual through an environment. "We're still thought of as a service that comes in afterwards and corrects issues: ‘Put a sign here with an arrow on it,' " he explains. "The problem, however, [may be] that the elevator banks are set back too far in this hallway and people can't see them. Is there a way that a wall could be curved, the banks could be brought further forward, or an accent wall could be positioned nearby? Such features would free up the signage so it could focus on more important things, such as telling an individual which areas an elevator bank serves. Think of signage as a support system (not the focus or single solution) to a wayfinding plan."

2. Be open-minded: Budget for needs and testing.
In a complicated environment like a zoo - or an open-air shopping center, a hospital megaplex, or a university campus - directional and operational signage should be developed into an integrated set of systems. "One of the things I advocate for clients who have a proliferation of signs is to take a ‘zero-based signage' approach," notes Stephanie Weaver, customer experience consultant at San Diego-based Experienceology and former signage specialist for the San Diego Zoo. "It is like zerobased budgeting, where, instead of starting with a budget and then adding on 10 percent, you strip everything down to zero and determine the critical elements."

Since signs are often ordered and installed by different departments, the result can involve multiple signs all pointing in the same direction. "It really helps if you can simplify and de-clutter," says Weaver. "Oftentimes, I'll suggest that people take a digital photograph of an area, digitally wipe out all the signs, and then start fresh."

Don't think that means all your past problems are solved, however, cautions Weaver. "You can have a beautifully designed sign, but if it's put in the wrong location, you've wasted money. Or, a system [can look] great in the boardroom when the designer shows it to you, but in its actual location, the contrast is wrong, it doesn't work, or it's hard to read." She recommends making prototypes printed to scale with the correct font and colors, putting them in place, and testing them with multiple users (including those in wheelchairs). "Make sure to budget for prototyping," she says. "There's a time period after a building or section opens where these temporary prototypes can help you determine the effectiveness of your signage program. And, with new technology, they even look like the permanent signs."

In reality, testing never really stops. "Think ‘ongoing,' " says Bruce Thurston, associate director of facilities at the San Diego Zoo. "We have regular meetings with the operations department and we walk around different areas of the zoo to evaluate what's working and what needs adjustment. Visitor feedback forms are also helpful."

3. Make signs accessible to the broadest audience possible.
"It is possible to do that without bringing the entire level of the sign down to the lowest common denominator," says Corbin Design's Frank. "Information can be structured in a way so [that] everybody has access to a portion of it."

For example: Photographs and color-coded icons, which appeal to all ages, can be better understood by small children and non-English-speaking adults, according to Thurston. "A graphic icon of a panda or a toucan is universal for any language," he says. "And, as we direct people to a specific location, we make sure the graphic icon and colors are consistent en route."

Weaver agrees. "In a zoo environment, there are a lot of decision-making points. Visitors need to be able to determine where they want to go. The big-picture view is that you want your visitors to be comfortable, and comfort isn't just about having enough seating or an air-conditioned space. Another aspect of comfort is psychological comfort. When people feel lost or confused, they're not comfortable."

Frank, Weaver, and Thurston all point to the effectiveness of using large-scale sculptures or structures as wayfinding icons to help orient people in any location. While it may not be feasible to have a manmade mountain in your shopping center or office complex, a centralized clock tower or colorful garden may do the trick.

4. Well-maintained signage usually lasts longer.
While the materials used in signage may determine longevity, your facility inspections should always consider the condition of your signage. Make minor repairs as needed and adjust the location if daily wear and tear is taking its toll. Strategically placed plants can deter people; make sure that foliage is regularly trimmed so that it doesn't obscure adjacent signage. Thurston and Weaver agree that one of the best deterrents to vandalism and signage disrepair is keeping up with your maintenance.

In the end, though, says Frank, "You want to design signs for people. Put it out there, do the best job you can to design it, and let people enjoy and experience it."

Linda K. Monroe ([email protected]) is editorial director at Buildings magazine.

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