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Know-How: Signage

From the earliest ages, students learn the importance of signs in schools. The ability to recognize the symbols or words that differentiate the boys' bathroom from the girls' bathroom has saved many a youngster unneeded embarrassment.

Some help people find their way around; some impart valuable safety cues; and some provide those with disabilities vital information to function on campus without unnecessary obstacles. Signs are an often unsung element in the ambience of a school facility. When signage is inadequate or ineffective, newcomers and regular visitors can become frustrated and begin avoiding a campus.

Signage becomes more important as a campus grows larger and more complex. More buildings, more paths and more congestion add up to more opportunities to get lost. When the campus is 350 to 400 acres, such as Georgia Tech in Atlanta, having effective signage is critical. That's why the university developed a wayfinding plan for its campus.

The consequences of poor signage for the campus, according to the plan: inconvenience, poor campus image, inefficiency, congestion and compromised safety.

Georgia Tech's plan calls for signage directing people from nearby neighborhoods and highways to the campus; identification signs to define campus boundaries; directional signs to guide vehicles to parking areas; directional signs and map kiosks to aid pedestrians; and uniform building-identification signs.

Schools that follow an overall wayfinding plan recognize that an effective signage strategy also can enhance a school's image and identity. The University of Wisconsin at Madison has identified three guiding principles in developing its wayfinding and signage system:

  • The signs “should be presented in a manner that enhances the campus environment.”

  • The signs or graphics should be consistent with their immediate surroundings and with the campus as a whole.

  • Unification of the various visual communicative elements found on campus should foster the concept of a positive image and identity.

A school's identity in a community often is tied to the school's colors, so in many cases, those colors are used as a basis for the institution's signage system.

“The color system should be selected to provide proper contrast between the background and the letters,” says the signage guidelines at the University of Chicago. “When there is a hierarchy of information to be conveyed, it may be useful to employ additional colors for impact.”


Signage elements at the University of Chicago fall into four basic categories:


Placed at intersections, these indicate directions for vehicular or pedestrian traffic.


These identify the “edge” of campus, a place, facility or structure.


Positioned near main campus entries and public parking areas, these provide campuswide information through a map and facility directory.


These communicate regulations and restrictions as they pertain to vehicles or pedestrians.

Source: University of Chicago

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