Posted by Chris on 27.04.2012


The discussion regarding applicable standards for sign systems is something that comes and goes in the wayshowing community, and often becomes an argument about the balancing act between known solutions and new solutions. It is hard not to have the impression that creative designs present–to some people–a risk to the efficacy of their wayshowing system.

This fear is probably based on the myth of the designer as a head-in-the-clouds ‘creative’ type whose sole job is to channel their personal creativity into work for a client. And one of the worst things the design industry has done (aside from cigarette packaging) is let this myth gain traction. This creative is guaranteed to mess up the system because their designs are too weird, or because they don’t take the needs of the wayshowing strategy into account. The creative is then a source of consternation, a threat, and not to be trusted with serious work.

Good thing that a designer is not a creative. Extra good that a designer is not an artist. As summed up by Mike Monteiro in his excellent Design Is A Job:

“The myth of the magical creative is alive and well, and it’s powerful. It’s equally perpetuated by designers and those who work with them. And it’s destructive, reducing a designer’s job to pixel-pusher, prettifier, and someone who feels their way to success. A magical creative is expected to succeed based on instinct, rolling the dice every time, rather than on a methodical process that can be repeated time and time again.”

A designer is a problem solver, working within a set of constraints. To ignore these constraints is to decide not to design. Yes, often solutions will require the designer to think creatively, but this should not be allowed to override the constraints that have already been set in place.

Standards bearers

What do we gain by conforming to standards in signage design?

  • First; we have base level of efficacy that can be used to assess designs with–this particularly relates to legibility and vision requirements.
  • Second; a level of conformity to information that helps users recognise when a given type of information is being displayed, such as accessible amenities or route selection.
  • Third; assurance for the client that the system will work.

This last point is often underrated, but simply saying that a design conforms to the relevant standard often assures the client that the system being presented will minimise problems for their users, whether that is actually the case or not.

The risk with standards is that they stifle creative solutions to existing problems. By saying that a sign needs to be an exact height, typeface and colour, you are removing the ability of the designer to question the need for a sign in the first place. Standards don’t look at end results–they look at the methodology.

Often this situation is encountered with the desire to place Braille and tactile signs throughout large institutions. There are good intentions behind this–people want those with a disability to be able to use their facility independently, and they think the Braille is a neat solution for this. What it ignores is that complex environments cannot be easily navigated using Braille signage.

Imagine going to a conference centre with a large auditorium, closing your eyes, and being expected to find a small panel somewhere on the wall that tells you you’ve reached Door 7. Should be relatively easy to do by systematically scouring the wall. Now imagine that there’s a large number of people attending the conference, and you have to feel your way across a crowded and bustling auditorium. Suddenly the degree of difficulty becomes much higher, if not impossible. 

The requirement for Braille directional signage is often unhelpful, and relying on such a standard ignores the actual needs of the users. Research in the United States indicates that approximately 10% of the legally blind can read Braille, and this continues to drop with the rise in popularity of text-to-speech programs. If the guiding standard was “Visually impaired people can find their through the environment” rather than “Provision must be made for Braille and tactile signage”, then this would not be an issue. Here, then, is a situation where looking outside of the standard can reveal better solutions which would otherwise not have been apparent. By the way, the image below? That’s a touch screen interface with Braille explanatory text. You would not believe how useful that is.

Myki machine with braille text

Reliance on standards for some aspects of wayshowing design then starts to influence the desire for standards across all aspects—because its much easier to design these systems when you don’t have to think. Proper, considered thought is energy draining, which is why people will often rely on systems and processes to cover for their mental laziness. Everyone does it, because it saves time, and is way easier.

Consider buying a shoe. Do you get your foot measured every time? Probably not–you know which shoe size fits, and you’ll ask to try that one on. If the shoe does not fit properly, then you’ll adjust your expectations of shoe size up or down a little to match, and ask the shop assistant to provide you with a shoe that does fit. In all likelihood, the shoe is still not going to be a perfect fit. The only way to ensure that is to get it custom made.

I’m sure you’re smart enough to draw the analogy here. Wayshowing strategy and design is bespoke work. People come to you because they have problems they cannot solve themselves, and probably don’t fit in the traditional systems that manufacturers provide. They often need solutions to complex problems, or require integrated architectural and signage solutions.

The (attractive) elephant in the room

Design creates value not through making things look good but by solving tricky problems through analytical and creative thinking. And, yes, there is an aesthetic basis for some of these solutions. There is a school of thought regarding User Interface design which posits that when people ask for, or describe, interfaces which are intuitive, they are actually talking about having a positive aesthetic reaction to it.

It follows, and makes logical sense, that an attractive user interface is likely to be more intuitive (read: accepted) than one which is ugly. When all other factors are considered equal, people will always opt for the more aesthetically pleasing option. Although subjective, a large number of naturally beautiful qualities make sense for interface design; symmetry, scale, relationship, and iconography are all important.

A wayshowing system is essentially a user interface for the built environment—a series of tools that someone can use to find their way around a building. The clarity and aesthetic quality of this interface will influence the way people interact with the environment. You could have the clearest and most logical wayfinding solution, but if that solution is ugly it is unlikely to be valued and accepted by the client and the user.

Part of this aesthetic solution has to resolve the way in which a wayshowing system integrates with the environment around it. There needs to be a balance between the clarity of information delivery and the ties to the building, park or street. If that balance is not achieved, the system will fail to be effective–you either have a system that sticks out like a sore thumb, and looks about as good, or a design that fades into the background, and is about as useful as a sore thumb. The design below manages to do both; practically invisible, with its grey-on-grey approach, but once you see it, it rewards you with unabashed blandness.

Melbourne city wayfinding signage

Standards and regulations alone cannot tell you how attractive a design is, and yet they seek to control every aspect of the way a piece of information is structured on the panel. Text size, character width, image size, colour contrast–all of these have been, in one aspect or another, regulated to conform to standards based design. Most of this could be solved by asking the simple question:

Does it work?

Aesthetic value as a civic duty

Those who’ve been paying attention throughout this rant will probably be able to surmise where this is going, but it bears explanation. Wayshowing designers must accept some form of responsibility for the aesthetic beauty present in the built environment. Amongst street artists, architects, and bill posters, we are the least examined discipline, and yet our designs have a strong impact on how an area is perceived.

Designers like to think of themselves as agents of change, an important guiding force in the world–you should read First Things First 2000 to get an understanding of this mindset. For all its posturing and socially responsible thinking, the manifesto says very little of the joy that beautiful design can bring to our lives.

Clients often say they know little of design, and this may be so. I know of designers (myself included) who have had forceful physical reactions to works of art and design. I have yet to meet a client who has similar feelings about visual ephemera. And yet they all have Apple products, where beauty is pushed to the point that ergonomics are often disregarded, and they all want to live in traditionally beautiful homes.

These are people who are willing to sacrifice a beautiful design for a cheaper, slightly less beautiful one, and yet they must have some base perception of what is and isn’t attractive, or they would not choose to decorate their homes, have good china, enjoy one painting over another. It is not that they dismiss the value of art and design–it is that they value it less than other things. These are not the same thing.

To say that there are very few aesthetes (those who value beauty above all else) is to ignore that most people have a feeling for beauty, it’s just not first on their list of priorities. But they still have it. We do not use smell as our primary sense, and yet we prefer a nice perfume to a dead fish. If we extrapolate this to visual design, should we not aim for beauty alongside usability?

The difficulty of aiming so high is that its much easier to assess how well something works than how good it looks. Jonathon Rez talks about how one might assess wayfinding systems:

“Some of the most functional wayfinding systems I know, those that effectively help people navigate through an environment, aren’t particularly aesthetically appealing; some highly imaginative and beautifully crafted designs provide a pleasing experience, which in turn is undermined by the frustration rendered by their impracticality. Another typical evaluation criteria would be the level to which the design is sensitive to the physical context in terms of placement, choice of materials, colours, form, typography etc… and the extent to which this supports or inhibits the desired visitor experience”.

This sentence summarises what I’m attempting to express here–the design of a wayfinding system is more than just how it works, or how it looks. It is the fusion of both that creates the best experience for users. Yes, standards and standardised designs will help ensure that the directional information works, but a truly effective wayfinding system will combine clear directions and beautiful design.

Beautiful design, like art, should be timeless–and yet that initial frisson, gasp and wonder will fade with time. Yes, Van Gogh’s Starry Night is still pleasing to look at, but its sublime nature has faded with time. Comedy, too, falls victim to the same trap, whereby jokes that were once funny fade with repeated telling.

Design is not immune to this problem. Attempting to control the use of colours, typefaces and panel sizes any further risks the harmony of design and clarity by removing the ability of the designer to create a great experience, and letting that which was visually appealing ten or fifteen years ago dominate that which is created now. Standards have immense power over the way designs function, and trust in the absolute letter of these can be misplaced. Designers should question how it is that these standards are agreed upon, and who it is that benefits from their solutions.

To summarise, I am arguing that design is not just the façade applied to an engineering solution. Design is problem solving. The fact that most designers also make beautiful things should tell you that how it looks is an integral part of how it works.