Signs of Success

May 1, 1998
Administering a new building-signage program should begin by viewing the project through the eyes of a first-time user.Imagine trying to orient yourself

Administering a new building-signage program should begin by viewing the project through the eyes of a first-time user.

Imagine trying to orient yourself as a college freshman on a campus with poor signage. Consider the fear of a first-grader looking for the school nurse through tears, or the anxiety of a parent trying to locate the principal's office in an emergency.

Early impressions of an education institution begin to form the first time a visitor enters a building or campus. A well-designed signage package can help make those first impressions positive. While signage can be evaluated effectively at any point, renovation or new construction projects provide the ideal opportunity to address a comprehensive building-wide system that works within the aesthetics of a newly established design. Working with the many flexible systems on the market, signs can be customized to meet the specific needs of a building and its inhabitants.

Ins and outs of traffic patterns The two most important considerations in developing a signage program are an evaluation of the physical characteristics of the facility and a thorough understanding of who uses it and why. Begin by asking some basic questions: -How many entrances are there to the facility, and how are they accessed? -How do you want various users to access and utilize the building? -Are all entrances handicapped accessible or only specific ones? -Are entrances locked or unlocked? -Who will regularly inhabit the building(s)? -What occasional users also should be considered? -How will each of these users experience the building? -What are their vantage points and expectations?

A hierarchy of signs Most schools do not have the luxury of stationing a receptionist to direct visitors at the main building entry. However, a well-designed main directory at strategic entrances can provide individuals with the information needed to get where they want to go. This directory can send a message about the school and its mission, making newcomers feel welcome and comfortable.

Once someone enters the building, the main directory is the first in a hierarchy of signs he or she will encounter. Main building spaces and departments, as well as the general direction of a series of numbered rooms, are called out with arrows directing people to each specific destination. The goal of this first sign is to provide individuals with just enough information. For example, a parent on the way to a teacher's conference would enter the building and, with the student's classroom number in hand, read a range of room numbers from the directory. A corresponding arrow would point the parent toward the room. Since there is likely to be one or more turns before the classroom, the parent only needs general directional information.

The second level of signs occurs at or just before intersecting corridors, stairwells or elevators. These "directionals" state the locations and provide arrows leading toward the right direction. Depending on how many intersections one encounters before reaching his or her final destination, directional signs would be placed in strategic locations.

Room designation signs are the third level in this hierarchy and let individuals know they have arrived at the desired location. These signs could include the room number, type of room and possibly the inhabitant's name. Considered permanent room designations, these signs need to adhere to the highest Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards and include tactile lettering, as well as Grade 2 Braille. Multiple colors used on one sign must meet guidelines for minimum contrast to aid sight-impaired individuals.

Designing a solution When involved in a large, costly construction project, resolving signage issues may not appear at the top of the to-do list, which will include hours of evaluating spatial relationships, floor plans, finishes and color schemes. As a line item in the budget, signage expenses may be placed in the category of expendable extras. However, when considering signage in the context of the overall project cost, it becomes a relatively small expense that can go a long way toward maximizing the effectiveness of a facility.

Consider consulting an environmental graphic designer to assist in helping guide you through the maze of manufacturers and signage systems on the market. With an understanding of the project's specific architectural and interior-design goals, a graphic designer often can customize available systems to work hand-in-hand with the interior-design palate.

The choice of fonts is another subtle, yet important, consideration. ADA requirements suggest the use of sans-serif or simple serif typefaces. Within those guidelines, administrators must determine what typefaces are the most readable. Also, in elementary schools, take into consideration how the font looks to a new reader. If the student population includes foreign-exchange students or second-language students, take that into account, too. Helvetica is a commonly used font in signage products; however, the uniform thickness of each letter makes it much less dynamic than other, more up-to-date choices such as Optima and Palatino.

Choose a system that is as vandalproof as possible, yet still allows changes of the various elements of individual signs while leaving the sign intact. The flexibility of a system should not be too obvious, however, or signs may be changed as pranks. Unless an area is secured, avoid signs with obvious slide-out elements and vinyl lettering that easily can be changed or removed. The durability and thickness of the materials used for signs will add more to life expectancy than to the cost.

Although signs are installed as one of the final steps in a construction project, building signs are much more than the icing on the cake. For a new user, a quality signage program that is thoughtfully implemented becomes the key to unlocking all the amenities and other exciting features of a facility.

A bold interior design featuring bright reds, purples and yellows marks the hallways of Benton Hall Academy, a recently reconstructed K-5 elementary school in Little Falls, N.Y.

Customized signs highlight these colors and feature overlapping geometric shapes, such as stars, circles, squares and rectangles, to create a different kinetic solution for each of the school's three floors. Differences in the design from level to level provide visual clues that assist students in finding their way. For example, a kindergartner who remembers that his or her floor has stars will know when he or she has reached the correct destination.

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