Make a Good First Impression with Signage

Sept. 1, 2008

Make wayfinding in your buildings an easy experience

Construction and energy costs are rising. Baby Boomers are sporting trifocals. Many Americans can't read (or, more specifically, can't read English). Building owners and developers are becoming increasingly aware that creating universally accessible, sustainable, and aesthetically pleasing spaces are basic requirements in today's competitive marketplace. Buildings that engender an immediate comfort level are clearly the most desirable.

Wayfinding encompasses all of the ways in which people orient themselves in unfamiliar surroundings and find their way from place to place. We've all experienced examples of successful wayfinding in spaces that make us feel comfortable and confident from the moment we arrive. Conversely, we've all become totally disoriented in dimly lit parking structures, or confused by mazelike corridors.

With new technology and human behavioral studies, wayfinding has evolved significantly, and will continue to do so. In the past, and even today, standard wayfinding programs consisted of signs or plaques, usually in English, mounted to walls or hanging from ceilings. Occasionally, facilities have additional systems in place, like an attended information desk or concierge, which offers the human touch to a possibly daunting experience.

The best wayfinding programs provide a combination of manufactured and human elements to create a guided experience for visitors. Highway or interstate signage, directional signs, and a site monument or building-identification sign can seamlessly guide the new visitor to their destination long before he or she enters the building. Successful interior wayfinding systems integrate architects, interior designers, graphic designers, and wayfinding specialists from the onset to address a project's total environmental communication. Building owners and facility managers need to specify understandable signage systems that, with appropriate placement, identify, direct, and inform the broadest group of visitors. In some projects, an intentional blurring of those disciplines has helped create an even more integrated environment where, instead of the traditional sign on a wall, the wall is a sign.

Many times, the first impression of a place is not the best experience. One example: A recent renovation project where the initial experience began in a multi-level, underground parking area. The design firm proposed utilizing the architect's 3-D model of the buildings above grade (see the image on this page). The bird's-eye-view rendering, combined with a compass-rose graphic, was embedded in the floor in front of the elevator, providing a preview of the buildings above, as well as directional orientation.

People tend to look down first, then up. A combination of information effectively presented on the floor and perpendicularly, and ceiling-mounted signage, capitalizes on natural human tendencies. Up-and-coming lighting technology for signage, such as LEDs, offers significant savings in energy, longer product life, and lower maintenance costs. Universal symbols are also evolving and expanding to provide more inclusive communication for non-English speakers and nonreaders.

Facility managers should stay on top of trends to make sure their signage is up to date, and they should imagine themselves as new visitors to see if their wayfinding program is easily accessible. Remembering who the signage should benefit ensures that tenants and visitors share a positive experience when they visit the facility for the first time.

Kelan Smith is an environmental graphic designer at Design Workshop, a firm that practices landscape architecture, land planning, urban design, and strategic services in Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Texas, and North Carolina.

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