The Science and Art of Signs?

Ever drive through a parking garage wondering where you are and whether the exit sign you saw a couple of levels ago has any follow up signs that will help you get back to the street? Among sign makers, garages are infamous for bad signs that don’t provide information when and where you need it.

Now think about traveling on an interstate highway. Are you ever confused about how far it is to the next city and the next three exits? Of course not. Interstate highway signage systems have mastered the logical science of telling people which way to go and when they have arrived.

Interstate signs are artful too. They many not be beautiful, but when you see a distinctively styled green sign with white lettering you know that you’re going to learn the distance to the next exit or couple of exits or the distance to the next city. You know that the blue signs with white letters will provide information about rest stops and fueling stations.

If you have doubts about the signs in your schools currently, or if you are planning signs for a new school, here’s how to think about the art and science of signs.

Four Categories of Signs

There are four categories of signs, and each performs a function, says Ernest Dwight, president of Charlotte, N.C.-based SouthWood, a company that specializes in the creation and implementation of custom signs and graphics for commercial and corporate businesses, government, hotels and resorts, and schools. Here are the categories.

Identifying Signs
— tell you what something is. The sign in front of the building that names your school is an identification sign. So are the room numbers on the classrooms.

Directional Signs — guide people to places with identifying signs. The printing on such a sign might say “Rooms 20 to 35” with an arrow pointing down a corridor.

Regulatory Signs — govern behavior. “Visitors Report to the Office” and “No Food in the Auditorium” are examples of regulatory signs.

Informational Signs — provide information. A sign that tells PTA visitors that the school’s fourth grade students created the art on the wall conveys information.

“The best signage systems are those planned and designed with an understanding of these sign types,” Dwight says. “They don’t mix up the categories or provide more than one piece of information.”

Sign Planning
“We start planning a sigh system by making a list of everything that signs must identify,” says Dwight. “In a school that may be the school itself, the main entrance and secondary entrances, classrooms, gymnasium, cafeteria, media center and so on.”

Next, Dwight divides the identifying sign list into hierarchies. What are the larger, more important major identities? These would include the outside sign that identifies the school to passers-by, the football stadium and the gymnasium.

The faculty lounge would fall into another hierarchy, as would the computer and chemistry laboratories.

“Divide everything into primary, secondary, tertiary and incidental categories,” Dwight says.

“Once you’ve identified everything you need to label, it’s time to direct people to identifying signs,” he continues. “Map out a directional program starting with signs for approaching vehicles to pick up and drop off and to park.”

Next come directional pedestrian signs. For a one-story school, the directions are left, right and straight ahead. Facilities with multiple stories will also need up and down signs.

In a particularly large school with a campus, you might break the campus and school into zones. Directional signs take people to the zones where more directional signs send them to their destinations.

If the identifying and directional signs are done properly, moving around the property is easy for a visitor. “If the signing scheme doesn’t work, it’s a mistake to add more signs,” Dwight says. “You have to figure out what’s wrong and fix it. More signs almost never help.”

Directional signage can work with architecture, which today pays attention to way finding.

“Architects start by molding the shape of the building to the site,” says Steven Hawley, executive director of the Raleigh, N.C. office of Fanning Howey, an architectural firm specializing in schools. “It’s important to orient the building toward the direction from which people come and use large doors, perhaps transparent, so that it is easy to find the front door.

“Inside, architects use colors and markings on the floor, walls and ceiling to identify and direct.”

Red tile on the floor leading into a red corridor might lead to the right while blue floor tiles might lead to a blue corridor on the left.
Identifying and directional signs can make the architectural wayfinding efforts explicit.

Placing regulatory and informational signs is self-explanatory: just use them where needed — without mixing categories.

Creative Signs
Planning sign systems that identify, direct, regulate and inform is an analytical process, while designing and making the signs takes creative thought.

According to Dwight, design considerations include the identity of the school. Sign design for a STEM magnet high school would differ from sign design for a suburban elementary school. STEM school signs might be shiny and high-tech looking while the elementary school might use large colorful signs.

“While it’s important to create an appropriate visual presentation, don’t get hung up on materials,” advises Dwight. “The best materials are those that last a long time. It doesn’t matter what the material looks like — the finish determines the quality of the look.”

That’s the science and art of signs: When you assess or plan a school’s signage system start with the science and finish with the art. 

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