Screens at Manchester Art Gallery, Holmes Wood

New approaches to signage

Simon Stephens, 15.12.2010
New technology and the growing need to be more sustainable are changing the face of museum signage
NEW TRENDS

As well as the growing importance of brand identity in signage and wayfinding, the other big influence is new technology. Digital signage, interactive floorplans and handheld multimedia guides are all becoming more common, particularly for those with bigger budgets.

Digital signage offers flexibility, and can be easily updated and personalised. “Digital signs are fantastic for real-time information,” says Lucy Holmes, creative director at design consultancy Holmes Wood, which has worked on wayfinding projects for the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), Manchester Art Gallery, the Natural History Museum and Tate Modern, among others. It was recently appointed to design a wayfinding masterplan for Museums Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery.

“Digital signs remove the need for lists of static content and therefore de-clutter spaces,” says Holmes. “At the V&A, we designed a bespoke system to feed real-time information onto the screens in the two main entrances. At Manchester Art Gallery we created a simple set of templates that could be updated immediately.”

Digital signage costs money and it is often the software, rather than the hardware, that takes the lion’s share of the budget.

However, Graham Erickson, creative director at design and branding consultancy Endpoint, says that once the initial investment in hardware and software has been made, these systems can offer flexibility at low cost. “The drawbacks are that this technology is constantly and rapidly evolving, causing expensive equipment to quickly age,” he adds.  

Additionally, digital signage can encounter problems. “Too many museums have complex, expensive signage covered with an A4 sheet of paper offering an apology for its non-performance and written instructions instead,” says Erickson.

ONLINE WAYFINDING

Increasingly, visitors are taking advantage of the wayfinding information that museums provide online. Planning their visit before they arrive at the venue can help improve their experience, but it is important to remember that not everyone will want or be able to do this.

“The emergence of pre-visit wayfinding and visitor information is certainly useful to a certain visitor who can pre-plan a visit,” says Erickson. “But this does not apply to the rainy-day visitor who spontaneously drops into a museum for a short period – their visit should still be an interesting and fulfilling experience, so the physically installed wayfinding measures should be strong to support these visitors.”

HANDHELD GUIDES

Multimedia guides can be used to help visitors find their way round a museum or gallery, although such systems are expensive. Money has to be spent on content, software and the handheld devices.

Lots of museums and galleries are also developing apps for iPhones and other mobile phones, but these are rarely pure wayfinding tools.

“Museums see apps and digital technology as an opportunity to communicate to their visitors in new ways that enrich their experience, and wayfinding is just one strand of this communication,” says Ian Cartlidge, a director at Cartlidge Levene, which has worked on wayfinding projects for the Barbican Arts Centre, Selfridges and Lord’s Cricket Ground.

“The next five years will see enormous development in this area and I think it will eventually become the norm for museums to communicate to their visitors in this way. How the physical world and the digital world dovetail together is going to be the big story over the next few years.”

Cartlidge says a logical next step is for the kind of programming used for Google Street View to move into buildings.

“You can imagine viewing the scene in front of you on your iPhone, with signs and information superimposed on top of the image.,” he explains. “Digital technology can also personalise information to the individual visitors likes and dislikes – just think what iTunes and Amazon already do. This technology exists today and museums just need to harness it.”

While Cartlidge believes that there will always be a need for physical signage, no matter how pervasive digital wayfinding tools become, he says visitors will come to expect digital tools. "These will become as much a part of the experience as the buildings themselves.”

SUSTAINABLE SIGNAGE

As well as new technology, the other big influence on signage and technology in recent years has been demands by museums and galleries for environmentally-friendly signage and wayfinding solutions.

Sustainable signage is obviously better for the planet, but systems that are easy to update can be cost-effective as well.

“Where signage has to be flexible, we develop interesting new ways of achieving updateable signage systems,” says Ian Cartlidge, whose firm won the Design Week 2010 wayfinding and environmental graphics award for its work on the new Guardian News and Media headquarters in London.

The goal is to make the changeable element as cost effective and as easy to operate as possible.

“If a client finds a changeable system difficult to operate they simply won’t do it,” Cartlidge explains. “You can see this occasionally where stickers appear on signs – this is when a system breaks down. Visitors and customers lose confidence in a wayfinding system when this happens.”

There is also a lot of choice of recyled materials now, although this can sometimes be comparatively costly. Endpoint’s Graham Erickson says the firm tries to work with responsibly sourced local materials where possible.

“Recently we have seen beautiful signage rendered in recycled cardboard, paper and timbers,” he says. “Green materials and manufacturing processes are widely available, though constant vigilance is needed to research these and define which are genuinely environmentally acceptable and which just employ these claims as a marketing device.”

BACK TO BASICS

Despite new technology and the demands for sustainable signage, designers agree that the principles of good wayfinding remain the same. Lucy Holmes, of Holmes Wood, says the dominant factors are still usually budget, management of the scheme once the signage experts have completed their work, changeability and durability.

“How we work has changed with the massive advances in technology, but the principles remain the same,” she says. “A wayfinding scheme must ensure that the visitor experience is positive – this doesn't change.”

There is another important factor in wayfinding that is low-tech, but pretty hard to beat: face-to-face help.

“We know that even in environments where the signage is clear, effective and immediately accessible, people will occasionally ask another human for directions,” says Erickson. “Do we really want to eliminate this form of cooperative communication entirely?”

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