Signage design is a creative challenge

Where are you going? I don’t mean in the metaphysical sense, that’s too deep for right now. I mean do you know what direction you’re facing, where you should be heading, that sort of thing? When did you last glance at a sign or a map?

Some people have what’s called a ‘good sense of direction’. This isn’t because of any freakish internal compass, at least not normally. It’s really down to a process of dead reckoning; keeping rough track of direction, turns, distance, and so on, generally without all that much conscious effort. It isn’t hard, although it can really catch you out if you’re used to relying on it and something throws you off. But no matter how good you are at this, you’ll still appreciate a decent directional sign every now and then: North. Way Out. Express Lane. Front. Embarkment. Ticket Office. Home. This is all the realm of signage, the stuff that helps us get where we want to be – at least if it’s done right.


As usual, there’s an underlying reason for why I go off on these tangents, and today it’s because of a particular route-marking challenge. The task at hand is signage for a student show in college. It is a one-day event, a kind of pop-up show that’s being held in a far-flung room a bit of a walk away from the main entrance. Posters have been designed that say what the show is, what the college is, and what room it is in – but that’s not going to help anyone once they’re through the college entrance. Take it from me; half the students would be hard-pushed to find room M401 even if they’ve been there three years! If you’re new to the place you’ll definitely need help. So what are the options?

How about student ‘ambassador’ guides, waiting at the entrance to walk visitors up the main stairs, past the entrance to the Tower block and through the ‘Upper Street’ gallery, across the Well gallery to the Design block, through the Atrium space (itself a gallery of work at the moment), around to the partially-hidden lifts in the Media block, and up to the fourth floor? I’m not kidding, that really is the route – and if you haven’t done it before it is every bit as maze-like as it sounds. No, although student guides would help, it would be far too labour-intensive to be practical. What’s needed is a set of signs to keep people on the right route without full-blown active assistance. Arrows are the norm for this kind of thing, but the question then is what kind of arrow?

Road signage is a good place to turn for codified information symbols, especially ones to do with routes. The arrows used in map-style road signs, the kind that show the route with solid strokes, are as minimal as they come. They’re simply whittled-down pointed ends of the basic road lines themselves, with no flared barbs or other adornment. As an indicator of direction these do the job well: no clutter, and an understated implication of continued direction rather than being a more overt pointer. Other arrows that point towards places without showing the road itself have proper arrow heads, and chevrons are arrow heads without the main shaft at all. So, if I was looking for a ready-made solution I’d be no closer to the answer.

Road signs can be pretty damn confusing, although the UK’s system, designed by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert between 1957 and 1961, is largely a model of clarity. (Calvert considers the current developments of the designs to be increasingly ‘sloppy’, but it remains comparatively clear and effective.) For a great example of a sign that’s likely to confuse, look no further than the American ‘Three-Way Directional Road Sign’, a text-free diamond that has branching arrows pointing left, straight ahead, and right. So, which do you take? Erm…


However, this is a classic example of me getting too bogged down in the details. The need is for simple direction indicators to keep people going in the right direction. The students already have their posters, so teaming those with a selection of arrows showing the way to go is the simplest solution. Nobody wants to have to work through a prose description of a route.

The main staircase is the first challenge. From the entrance visitors can either walk straight past or up the steps. The signs can’t be right by this, so a general angled arrow could mean either route. Fortunately, a fun bit of visual logic led to an answer: an arrow with a few right-angled steps in the shaft is a simple and effective solution to showing which route to take. Well, at this point it looks like it will be effective, but we’ll see.


Signposting the route through the Upper Street gallery at the top of the stairs is a particularly difficult one. The problem is having no available surface for a poster, let alone an additional arrow. That’s going to take some serious thought. If it was allowed, I’d be tempted to suggest creating a distorted arrow on the floor, in the style of the elongated arrows seen painted on roads all over the country. This kind of anamorphic projection produces roughly correct-looking results when seen from a driver’s perspective, but when looked at in the flat they look pretty strange. The precise distortion used for these is painstakingly worked out, as shown by the engineering-style documents at, the official Department for Transport’s ‘traffic sign working drawings’ collection. Like I said, I’d be tempted to try something like this – but not without lots of planning and official permission.

Fortunately the rest of the route won’t be too hard; there are occasional pillars where event posters can be placed, with arrows showing that yep, you’re going the right way. A slightly angled arrow should lead people through the interim show in the Atrium gallery, and big posters on and inside the lift will finish things off.

I don’t have all these ready to show for one simple reason: this isn’t something I’m supposed to produce. Some solutions have been worked out already by the students, but they’ve yet to be implemented. I’m going to wait and see how well they do. I’m sure it’ll go well, but remember I’m just an advisor in this, I’m not there to run the event. It’s their show, after all. So good luck to them… I hope everyone finds their way!


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