Signage: Background & Evolution

The Background & The Evolution of an Industry.

Never in our history has there been such growth in the field of communications. Our cities and public areas have become ever more complex, and many of our new facilities are overwhelming in size and intricacy. These factors make it obvious that well-designed, aesthetically pleasing signage must be placed to help those unfamiliar with a site or facility to find the way to their destination.

Interior signage has been used for many years; however, it has only been since the early 1970’s that it has been recognized for its importance. Prior to that, there was little concern for the continuity of design, color, letter style, or installation, and interior signs were considered utilitarian in nature. Once buildings began appearing with attractive, professionally designed signage systems, an appreciation developed for the part that signage plays in the success of the facility.

Variety of Sites and Facilities

Each type of facility has its own unique set of requirements for identification and wayfinding, and it is incumbent on the designer to analyze and address those.

For example, a typical small retail store or restaurant in a downtown shopping area primarily requires identification to attract customers passing by. Once in the store, visitors are directed by departmental and merchandising type signage. Larger stores employ directories, and wayfinding signage to get to various departments or floors. Also, executive office identification, and common area public signage (such as restrooms) are directed and identified for the benefit of customers. As the stores become larger, and thus more complex, the demand for signage increases.

In the mall setting, retailers are dependent on their identification sign to attract customers, however, the mall owner is concerned with disseminating information regarding the entire facility and attracting and retaining more tenants. Such amenities as large map directories at each entrance, directional signs for restrooms, food courts, first aid, and emergency exits are keys to the overall success of the enterprise.

Hotels and resorts require intensive signage for wayfinding throughout the facility, of which very little is escorted. Beyond simply finding the correct room number, modern hotels and resorts embrace many of the same retail options found in a mall, and directional signs along with signs that provide for the safety of guests are essential.

The Design Process

A graphics designer must consult with architects, owners, and operations and maintenance personnel to adequately understand the wayfinding characteristics of a facility. It should be noted that the prudent business person operating in today’s litigious society will take precautions to provide adequate signage to satisfy risk management issues in and around properties that they are responsible for, whether or not such signage is required by local fire or building codes, OSHA, or any other regulatory authority.

ADA Compliance

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law by President George Bush in 1990, and became effective on January 1, 1992. This sweeping civil rights act forever changed the way buildings and landscapes were conceived and designed, and, as part of the process, signage was impacted in a similar fashion.

All of the elements that are basic to good signage come into play with ADA compliance, including conspicuity, contrast, type of finish, and use of symbols. However, ADA added some additional considerations including tactile lettering, size of lettering, the use of Braille, and sign placement. In the early stages there was a good deal of confusion in the design community, which was learning to deal with all of these new mandates. All of the initial concern and anxiety over compliance issues was quickly overcome, and now there are qualified ADA architectural signage manufacturers/consultants in most areas of the United States.

Business Value of a Well Conceived Signage Program

Although we have principally discussed interior signage here, the exterior directional and informational signage are equally important, and are most often designed to work with the interior program. The measure of the value of a well-conceived signage program is the enhanced functionality and aesthetic appeal as it translates into a positive economic impact (profit) to the owner.

Competition often drives the necessity of improving the visual environment, and thus, revenues. A case in point is the Las Vegas hotel/casino industry, perhaps the most unique such city in the world. Billions of dollars are spent to design, build, maintain, and market these lavish, heavily themed resorts with enormous success. And those who lag behind in these efforts eventually become casualties of the “newer and better.” Recent history shows that the older properties are being torn down, and replaced with new ones, which must out do the older “new” properties. Surely this trend will subside, but circumstances that would cause this are not apparent at this time. These investors don’t do this because they like to spend money; they do it because they will be more competitive. Signage plays a great part in both the promotion and operation of these “glitz and glamour” palaces, which include huge gambling, merchandising, theatrical, convention, hotel, and food service functions, among other amenities.

Office buildings are certainly not immune to competition. Highly train and skilled property management companies, for the most part, manage such facilities professionally. In order to effectively compete for tenants, they must portray an appearance that potential clients recognize as one which meets their expectations of how their firm should be perceived by their own clients. In other words, does the image of the building match that of the potential client’s firm? If this sounds like snob appeal, it is, but by the same token this demonstrates how sensitive appearance and image is to building owners and managers, their clients, and visitors who are themselves clients. The visual environment is everything, and once again appropriate signage plays a vital role.

The importance of interior signage is firmly established, and respected by both the design and business community for its contribution to the commercial success of a facility. We look forward to newer and greater products in the area of signage, graphics, and electronic media addressing communication, identification, merchandising, and marketing.

An exciting prospect indeed.