Signs:the Most Useful Thing We Pay No Attention to
[A] Signage—the kind we see on city streets, in airports, on highways, in hospital corridors —is the most useful thing we pay no attention to. When it works well, it tells us where we are (as when an Interstate marker assures us we're on the right highway) and it helps us to get where we want to go (as when an airport banner directs us to our gate). When it fails, we miss trains, we're late to appointments, we spend hours pacing the indistinguishable floors of underground parking garages, muttering to ourselves in mounting frustration and fury. And in some cases, especially where automobiles are involved, the consequences of bad signage can be fatal.
[B] Bad signs can send perfectly ordinary citizens into spirals of obsession. Take Richard Ankrom, a Los Angeles artist who thought the junction of the 110 freeway and the 5 freeway was badly marked. In 2001, he put on an outfit that looked like the ones Caltrans highway workers wore, climbed up onto a freeway gantry, and mounted an aluminum sign he'd manufactured himself according to state specs. The sign stayed up for nine months without anyone noticing what he'd done; when the story leaked to the press and Caltrans finally cottoned on, the agency left the sign up for eight more years.
[C] Or consider Leslie Gallery Dilworth, a Philadelphia architect who took a road trip with her husband through Spain in the 1980s. Throughout the journey, they'd marveled at the simplicity of the European road signs, which were easy to use even though neither of them spoke Spanish. Upon their return to Philly, they got lost on the way from the airport to their house, when a bad set of signs directed them to a local dump. Dilworth was so struck by her own city's inhospitality that she spent much of the next decade working with the city and local stakeholders revamping Philadelphia's sign systems. Today, she's the CEO of the Society for Environmental Graphic Design, the premier American professional group for sign designers.
[D] Most people, when they think about it, can point to signs that have failed them: the hospital complex that felt like a labyrinth or the exit they always almost miss. But the truth is that signage today is far better than it's been at any other point in history. A century ago, sign design wasn't a profession to speak of; the signs that guided riders and pedestrians (there weren't many drivers yet) tended to be informal and ad hoc. As the automobile took off, the world found it needed traffic engineers, and it was these men and women who were the first to think seriously about sign systems. America put national standards for road signs in place in 1935.
[E] But the developers of office buildings, shopping malls, and other pedestrian spaces were slow to follow suit. Developers tended to assume that architects would take care of sign design, and many architects would leave it up to tenants. As a result, security guards and secretaries were often the ones to help orient the lost.
[F] The 1970s saw the first stirrings of revolution in the sign world. That's when the SEGD was founded, and it's when designers first began to seriously study how best to orient people and guide them through space. Their work was prompted in part by America's great urban thinkers: people like Kevin Lynch and Jane Jacobs, who argued that spaces should be designed not to fulfill the grand visions of architects but with humble human uses in mind. The field earned a name—"wayfinding," a Lynch coinage—and today, people in the business call themselves wayfinding designers and talk about places that have "good wayfinding" or "terrible wayfinding." By the 1980s and '90s, wayfinding advocates were involved in more development projects, but dispatches from the era have a slightly aggrieved air; designers of environmental graphics still often found themselves fighting for a place at the table. During the last 10 years, however, wayfinding has come into its own. More requests for proposals for major building initiatives now require bidders to explain how they'll handle wayfinding design. Many cities have installed wayfinding systems like the one Dilworth helped build in Philadelphia. New airports and train stations are routinely built with good navigation in mind.
[G] Why has there been such growth in the field? One cause is the remarkable pace of economic development over the past half-century. Developed countries have been building increasingly complicated spaces—shopping malls, multiplexes, convention centers, multi-terminal airports—that require good navigation systems in order for people to use them. In addition, businesses and municipalities alike have realized that well-oriented people are calmer, happier, and more likely to spend money (and plan return visits) than people who are lost. Investing in a good wayfinding system has real financial rewards.
[H] Another cause is our increasingly globalized planet. Much of the innovation in the sign world has been spurred by airports, places where people of all nationalities and tongues must move quickly, efficiently, and safely through huge spaces. For years, designers have been developing graphical symbols to help non-natives find the bathrooms, the baggage claims, and the