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Wayfinding attracts sign companies

March 1st, 2008 / By: / Feature, Graphics

From high profile sports, to airports and hospitals, sign companies thrive in this niche architectural market.

The word “wayfinding” means exactly what you’d think it might mean: it’s the process people go through when they’re orienting themselves in an unfamiliar environment. Today, wayfinding is a much-discussed topic among architects and designers. It is part of their job to make sure everyone can find their way around, both in buildings and in outdoor environments. But some sign makers are starting to gravitate toward this specialty, too.

Yes, wayfinding encompasses a lot more than signs, but signage is almost always a significant part of any installation. Potential clients, too, are realizing the importance of wayfinding. They might not know what it’s called, but they understand what it is and that they can’t skimp on it.

Imagine the case of a hospital

Gary Stenler, vice president of Nordquist Sign Co., Minneapolis, Minn., says his company does a considerable amount of wayfinding-related business in the health care field. The architects and designerswith whom he works recognize that they’re designing an environment to assist peoplewho are under distress.

“Everyone’s having a really bad day when they get to a hospital,” Stenler says. “The last thing on their minds is concern about getting lost, so the signage has to be very clear: a little larger, a little bit simpler to read, and a little bit more frequent. There are standards in place for how this sort of thing is supposed to look. It must be very recognizable, easy to read, and in places where you expect it to be.”

Retail, sports, and more

The retail industry also comprises a great number of wayfinding clients.

“We do a lot of condominium projects—retail condominiums in urban settings,” says Kevin Jeffries, president and owner of Island Dog Sign Company, Seattle, Wash. “A lot of office and commercial buildings have underground parking, street-level retail, and above that, condos, apartments or offices. The people coming in and out need to know how to get into the garage. If they’re going shopping, or they are visiting someone in a condominium, they need to find those in an easy-to-understand way.”

At sporting events, wayfinding is crucial. At stadiums, visitors need to find their seats, the restrooms, the food vendors, the exits. At multi-venue events, they need to be able to discern which areas are part of the campus and how to get to the correct site. In fact, sports-related wayfinding projects have become something of a theme for Salt Lake City’s Infinite Scale Design Group. Principal Molly Mazzolini was brand manager for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games; her two co-principals were the lead art directors for the games. Since then, they’ve also tackled the U.S. Tennis Association’s National Tennis Center (where the U.S. Open is held) and a string of Super Bowls.

Mazzolini points out that these events, while high visibility, are only a subset of the group’s wayfinding work. They also apply their talents to parks, museums, real estate developments, even cities. There’s a strong architecture and design component to the process.

“The way a wayfinding project begins is with a really thorough analysis,” says Infinite Scale senior designer Daniel Waeger. “That’s especially true with event signage, where a lot of people gather in a short period of time and crowd the space. You really have to be there while it’s crowded so you can do your analysis. Take pictures, take video and do head counts. Where do people enter, how do people move about, where do people exit, and what are the most visited facilities? How do people queue when there’s a bottleneck? Then you look at the plans for the architecture and the landscaping and the layout of the site over the next couple of years and say, ‘OK, how do we address this?’”

The balancing act

Jeffries says the architects his firm works with must strike a delicate balance between standing out and blending in.

“You’ve got to hit that medium ground, where it complements the environment but it’s still noticeable and effective enough so the people who need to utilize it can read it and can understand it correctly,” he says. “It’s more than just putting a sign up, obviously. There are a lot of components that make it an effective wayfinding package.”

Branding represents a significant part of wayfinding. Think about going to a conference. How do you know, almost subconsciously, that you’re staying in the correct part of the convention center? You’re identifying with the branding of your conference.

The same was true of the Salt Lake City Olympics, Mazzolini says Infinite Scale endeavored to create a consistent look and feel that could be applied to both competition and non-competition venues.

“With the Olympics it’s even more complicated, because you have different tiers of branding,” she points out. “There’s the Olympic rings, but there was also the host city mark, plus all the sponsor marks and logos that have to be integrated. The main concern is, you don’t want it to turn into logo soup. So all of [the banners] have logos on them for sponsor recognition, but they’re knocked out in white so it enhances the system rather than taking away from it.”

And then there are the signs themselves. Waeger estimates that within the U.S. Tennis Association project, which is still in progress, there are probably 300 to 400 signs made of approximately 12 different materials. There are small Braille-printed door signs that are designed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. And at the other end of the spectrum, there are huge pylons that serve to identify different areas of the campus. Certainly there’s a lot for sign companies to do.

Fabric graphics fit in

Every building or campus lends itself to a particular look and feel, Kevin Jeffries says. A design might specify signs made of wood, acrylic, flexible substrates, dimensional lettering, or any number of other materials. Fabric makes up a small but significant percentage of the signage.

“For our business, it’s fair to generalize that fabric is used more in temporary situations than in permanent ones,” hesays. “Prior to the developmentof a building, we do a lot ofwhat’s called construction hoarding, where we wrap a development site with graphics. That can be solid scrim banner material that has been digitally printed, or a mesh banner that’s applied to construction fencing. We also do digital printing onto self-adhesive vinyl, then apply it to a rigid substrate, almost likea billboard.”

While Jeffries manages most digital printing in-house, Stenler prefers to outsource it. As a custom fabricator specializing in wayfinding, Nordquist Sign works with materials ranging from aluminum to glass to stainless steel and bronze. It’s more sensible for them to work with an expert in fabric signage than to do it themselves.

“We don’t do any in-house digital printing,” he says. “But we will purchase maps and digital prints and use those in our fabrication. One type of signage we use fairly often is flexible-faced signs of 3M Panaflex ™ material for the outside environment.”

During the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, Infinite Scale’s principals demonstrated how digital printing can be integral to a wayfinding system. Entire buildings were wrapped inlarge-scale digital printing in order to help visitors find the events they wanted to see. Graphics, rather than words, were the focus of the signage.

“There was so much fabric that was used, from fence wrap and backs of bleachers to some of the building wraps that were used in the system,” Mazzolini says. “My two business partners, Amy Lukas and Cameron Smith, were the lead art directors for the games. They concepted, developed, and implemented all of the items that you see in the images.”

Wayfinding work

Wayfinding is primarily an architectural and design discipline. Even the largest sign companies work in tandem with design firms in order to produce wayfinding systems.

“We are a fabricator of the signage,” Stenler says. “We don’t do the documentation, as far as the design and laying out of the programming of each sign. We work with several large design firms around the country, and they put together the programming: what the signs look like and where they go. Then we work with them as far as the fabrication: how to construct the individual signs and how to install them.”

Jeffries has forged similar relationships.

“We work with a lot of architects, as well as developers of buildings,” he says. “That’s been the market we’ve been going toward for the last six or seven years. We try to let the architects and developers know that, one, we can do basic graphics, but two, we can also make sure that the graphics are more than just an identification piece. We ensure that it’s cohesive and that it tells the story of how a building works.”

Mazzolini says the relationship between the designers and the signmakers is a collaborative one. She says her firm seeks out a variety of sign companies in order to take advantage of their core competencies—vinyl, large-format digital printing, and so on. She tries to use as many local vendors as possible, but sometimes (in order to acquire a particular specialized skill, or in order to fill a very large order) she has to go outside of the host city.

“We give them intent drawings, and they come back with construction drawings,” Waeger says. “Then we sign off on them, and the stuff gets built.We choose most of our vendors because of experience, and because we see that they can handle the materials and do nice, clean work. It helps if they’ve done a lot of the big-campus sort of wayfinding projects before. There is a lot of operational and organizational work that has to go smoothly. You can’t start experimenting when you are in the middle of production.”

The sign companies are entrusted with precious cargo, Mazzolini says. The designers spend so much time and energy on the analysis, planning, and programming that they’re not going to give a contract to a sign maker who doesn’t pay attention to detail.

“We need to see superb finishes and durability,” she says. “It’s good to see new work, but sometimes it’s good to see their older work, too, so we can see how it stands over time. Also, it always helps if they have project managers. Often [on single-building installations] we work with small local vendors who can’t afford project managers, and that’s totally fine, because we do the project management on that. But on the large-scale projects, you have to have dedicated project managers from the vendor’s side.”

Knowing the niche

Wayfinding work waxes and wanes with development trends and the strength of the building economy, Jeffries says. It’s a niche market in which only a minority of sign companies specialize.

“I think it takes a specialized knowledge to become successful in it,” he says. “There’s a larger barrier to entry into that market, compared to the other types of sign work that are out there.”

There’s no particular education that’s needed, he says, but you need someone on staff who understands code requirements. You also need to be experienced in working with architects and speaking their language; there is a particular skill set involved in creating a cohesive package for a large multipart contract. Mostly, he says, it takes a lot more patience than run-of-the-mill sign work.

Stenler says a sign company interested in this market must have an understanding of awide variety of materials, preferably not just fabric, and the ability to cooperate with installers in far-flung locations helps, too. The more services you can offer, the more attractive you might appear to a designer looking for a vendor.

“What we’re able to offer is consistency from site to site,” Stenler says. “We fabricate everything here out of our facility, and then we contract to get them installed from place to place. It’s much more attractive than if you take this one specification to eight different companies. My company specializes in doing a lot of different products and being able to provide a turnkey solution.”

Jamie Swedberg is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to IFAI publications. She lives in Woodville, Ga.

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