Good Signage - Bad Signage


I remember one of my professors once told me that; "If you have to use signs to tell people how to navigate your building then your design has failed"

I don't mean to dispute that idea but sometimes I have to use signage in my projects. I was working on one project recently and I was lamenting the fact that we had to use these signs that, frankly, had the worst font... probably ever. I could go on explaining but this is not the point of the post.

I started to think about the last time I saw a sign that gave me some kind of positive visceral feeling. I remembered, when I used to live in Germany, that I had that feeling... I also never got lost. I recently went to Copenhagen and I had a similar feeling about their signage as well. 

So really the whole point of this post is about good signage and bad signage and what we think makes both.

I have noticed that there has been a trend (in my opinion a long established one) to integrate text and architecture. I have really become interested in the idea of how interwoven our experience has become between the 2 disciplines of graphic design and architecture.

I am interested in everyone else's opinions and I would like to see what you like about signs or hate about signs. Tell me I'm right, tell me I'm wrong and show me some pictures. I want to hear your thoughts. 


Jul 2, 13 11:57 am

I just visited the Seattle Public Library last week and loved its supergraphics.  There weren't many, but they gave a sense of order in a very complex building - as did color and lots of daylight.

two examples of signage that impressed me from a trip to San Francisco two years ago: bus stop signs and garbage can signs.

It seemed many of the bus stops had fancy signage, either posted on a dedicated pole or on a shelter, but not all of them had this.  What every single stop had, without fail, was a yellow stripe painted around any available vertical pole surface with a route number stenciled on, as seen here.  The stark utilitarian functionality of these signs thrilled me: very visible from a distance, with more info legible as one approached closer, and the ease of maintaining/changing them if a route number changed are all so appealing.

The garbage can signs throughout SF are also great, though I don't know if it's a mandatory language or not: every location has separate bins labeled Recyclable, Compost, and Landfill.  I love the truthfulness of labeling the bin Landfill: no escaping from the responsibility that what you throw in here will end up languishing unused, and probably polluting groundwater, for eternity.

Jul 2, 13 12:39 pm


"If you have to use signs to tell people how to navigate your building then your design has failed". . Muladi, regarding this "critique", take it with a grain of salt. This opinion may be geared towards using signage in construction or design drawings because signage may give the design a cluttered appearance, depending on the signage. However, ask this professor to go inside a building where there is no signage and if he/she is wondering where the restrooms are, for example, how would he/she know which is which,or where the exits are in case of an emergency, without signage .  After this experience , I doubt that they would be of the same opinion.

Muladi, don't sweat it.

Jul 2, 13 11:57 pm
That professor only told you half the story. Ideally a building has built in way finding, but almost all buildings need some sort of signage.
Jul 3, 13 12:58 am

I disagree, Chris and gruen. I think the general critique that a failed design has to rely on signage is valid.  There is a significant difference between a small sign denoting male/female restrooms and a large sign saying "Main Entrance This Way" with an arrow*.  And one *should* be able to have a general sense, based on path, volume, lighting, etc. which direction the toilets/elevator/large auditorium will be, whether they are signed or not.


*Think how often this sign lands on a set of monumental stairs in a public building - like the Supreme Court, for instance - when some bureaucrat decides the building security and climate can be controlled for much less cost if they shut the main door and force people into a tiny side entry.  Chris, you're in Philly, right? The super-cool Brutalist Roundhouse police station was littered with this sign on all of its ceremonial stairs. Granted, this example is a failure of operations not of design, but if a building's main entry isn't obvious from the original design then that is a failure.

Jul 3, 13 8:29 am

Unless it's intentional. Boston City Hall is an exquisite monument to impenetrable bureaucracy. The only indication of an entrance is people moving. 

As I get older I really appreciate simplicity and clear thoughtful signage, especially since we are so flooded with identifiers, directions, advertising and bad signage, all of which makes good signage all but invisible when it exists. 

Jul 3, 13 8:44 am

good signange is good.  a door is a door, which is sometimes fine.  but in a public space, a door with a restroom sign next to it can mean so much more.  that sign has definitely give me a "positive visceral feeling" when the circumstances were right.  by 'circumstance,' i mean too much beer.

sometimes signs are necessary.  by code.  that's right, signs are scoped in code.

i worked with a guy that has a building used for warehouse/distribution.  he has signs painted on the floor for the location of every trash can, recycle bin, and mop bucket.  everything has a place, and everything is always in it's place.  that way, employees know where to find stuff quickly.  impeccably clean place.  i think that was part of the whole toyota lean manufacturing thing.

Jul 3, 13 9:23 am

Interesting that Donna would bring up the SPL in the context of signage, since it stands as one of the all-time most egregious examples of exactly what the OP's professor was talking about. The spatial layout of that building is a mess, and the circulation is so confusing that the day it opened, the librarians were taping up photocopied wayfinding signs all over the walls to help people get out. Those photocopied signs were up for years, before they were replaced with more permanent versions that said the same things.

Jul 3, 13 12:21 pm

Hi Donna,

From your statements, the "failure" is an aethestics issue. Something that should have been made clear to Muladi, by Muladi's professor. The aethestics can be changed. If a building does not have a proper layout, circulation or flow, then it can be determined that the design of a building has failed. Donna, signage comes in handy. It depends on how signage is implemented.

Jul 3, 13 1:37 pm

gwharton, I visited the library last month, and spoke to a couple of librarians. They absolutely love the builiding. I think the beauty of that building is precisely the "confusion" in the circulation that makes one experience it a certain way, that is very different from your typical downtown library.

Jul 3, 13 2:58 pm

^ There is a difference between bad signage and no signage. 

Jul 3, 13 3:39 pm


Jul 3, 13 4:28 pm

Yes, what MIles said.  No signage is unworkable, no one is saying you can't have a single sign - like floor levels, exit stairs, etc.  The point is signage used to help *confused* people is bad.

I also agree with sameolddoctor - the SPL is an intentionally *complex* design.  That is not the same as confusing. It uses supergraphics in a cool way, and informational signage in an informative way.

Jul 3, 13 7:27 pm

I think the best sign I ever saw was shown to me in school...I think it was done by Arrow Street Architects in Bean Town....but I may be wrong.   It was a graphic  on a stair with the letters, "dn".....which read from the second floor said down and  from  the first floor said "up"  This is the element of design is where the Architect takes control....and it is not is damn good, no matter what a professor has to say.

Jul 3, 13 7:33 pm
Snooker, we been doing that for decades. No new joke there.
Jul 3, 13 7:38 pm
I always found the SPL to be easy to navigate. Signs are always necessary in a library.
Jul 3, 13 7:40 pm

Only if you insist.

Jul 4, 13 12:02 pm

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