Ensuring the movement of people through a site is inevitably a question of good design. A crucial part of this is the positioning of readable and well-placed signage: turn left here, exit this way, the cafe is through the double doors. Wayfinding is the design of movement, the steering of human traffic. It is the unspoken voice which guides the visitor through their encounter with a place, one which might be completely unfamiliar, but is as easily navigated as a space you’ve wandered through many times. The more complex an environment, the simpler the solution needs to be.
But steering our thoughts away from practical considerations for a moment, we may easily be seduced by the stylistic beauty of a sign. Signage is not just about the offering of practical knowledge, it is also about building an atmosphere. While moving around a building, graphics influence its look and feel, and create a sense of place (or, as in the case of airport signage, of non-place). So, wayfinding is closely connected to both graphic design and architectural space, a marriage of the two, as choices in signage are crucial in establishing a spatial identity. The building itself might be an iconic piece of architecture, yet graphic design sticks to a place like a patina, dressing and defining a space.
Positioned on the arm of Margate harbour, on a site once a seafront car park, sits Turner Contemporary. In 2011 the gallery opened its doors and Margate’s erstwhile crowds, once beachcombers and amusement park revellers, have at last returned, signposting a new era of leisure experience, a different form of tourism. Turner Contemporary’s graphic identity and signage contribute in shaping the feel of the place, as well as informing over a million visitors (to date) where they might find the galleries, learning studio or toilets. My first visit was in half term and the building was bustling with mothers and prams looking for baby changing or the café.
Graphic designer John Morgan has an ongoing collaboration with David Chipperfield. In 2008 his studio took on the design of a new identity for the international architecture firm, which covered all printed and electronic matter in an extensive manual of 200 templates, every kind of communiqué, letterheads, reports, business cards, agenda. The branding is simple, the company title placed at the top left of a uniformly brilliant white page. The typeface of this logo is a specially modified form of Aksidenz Grotesk, a 19th century sans-serif, renamed Grotesque DCA. It was John Morgan Studio who were commissioned by Chipperfield Associates working on the Margate project to establish the graphic identity for Turner Contemporary.
As is evident from their Chipperfield commissions, the studio’s output has a strongly typographic focus and a minimal aesthetic. It utilises classic typography with a stripped-back approach. For example, historical typefaces are selected and then adapted, tweaked, lathed, then spread majestically across a page with deep lungs-full of breathing space. Alone on an empty stage, the type is left to communicate unaccompanied, and the result is atmospherically clean and precise. There is no room for ambiguity. Morgan’s unsparing removal of design elements reduces his work, like fractions, to a common denominator of their most essential, distilled parts. Noise reduction to the level of silence. It is no surprise, then, that ‘quiet’ is a word which has been widely used to describe John Morgan’s work. It would not be correct, however, to equate this quietness with timidity. As Chipperfield points out, “if everyone shouts it’s a good idea to whisper. And John is a very good whisperer.”
Since most graphic design agencies lack the direct expertise in wayfinding to deliver an entire signage system, specialist consultants are often brought in to strategise. Whybrow Signing Consultants have worked on notable public buildings and spaces including Tate Britain, the BFI, Greenwich Peninsula and The British Museum. I met Ian Whybrow, founding director, in their Elephant and Castle studio. He informed me that the first stage in a wayfinding strategy is ascertaining on a plan the location of critical decision points, also known inside the industry as ‘dithering points’. This is a place where a ‘user’ is likely to pause, where of course, it makes perfect sense to place a sign.
Wayfinding is not really a science, Whybrow explained, it’s more a matter of common sense, along with a great deal of experience built up over the years, which can predict the way people will behave. We are, after all, largely predictable. A sign should not hold more than four or five points of information, and that information needs to be as simple as possible. This will ensure the user is not overloaded and tempted to just ignore it. Wayfinding is about simplicity. On the one hand the most informative sign might seem to be the best, but overload a user with information and it will not be absorbed.
Both the identity of Turner Contemporary and its wayfinding system were designed in a process which influenced and directed the other. Decisions over signage feed into the selection of typefaces, and back out again. The distinctive monospaced typeface of the gallery, Akkurat Mono, is immediately visible on the information board just inside the entrance. Monospacing allows each character the same amount of space, so the characters align vertically and the letter ‘i’, for example, is the same width as a ‘w’. This specification solves spacing issues and is modifiable. Engraved traffolyte letters, akin to the cold and smooth monochrome plastic of piano keys, can be slotted into specially designed runners, offering the potential to spell out changing custom information such as upcoming exhibitions, events, donor names or text-based artworks. The punchy typewriter typeface gives the impression of an ad-hoc DIY aesthetic, perhaps mixed with something literary. The customisable tiles give it a tactility that would be lost with a printed banner or LCD screen. In a deliciously neat detail, Morgan has used a customised version of Akkurat where the dots of the ‘i’s appear to be modified to resemble the sloping angle of the building’s three roofs.
Looking through an extensive set of plans for signage with Ian Whybrow, we looked at a projected image of the intended ‘BI’ – building identifier – the monospaced title ‘Turner Contemporary’ sandblasted into the concrete on the outside entrance wall. I was told such a process would reveal patterns in the smooth grey surface, a kind of beachy texture. It would have looked beautiful, but tie holes, the regular dips along the edge of the concrete surfaces, rendered the BI an impossibility. In any case, it turned out to be unnecessary — the building has become its own signifier.
With hindsight, predictions for the numbers of people visiting the building were no way near optimistic enough. Plans were not in place for the vast crowds the gallery has received. And while they might be visiting an attraction for different reasons, they all have predictable needs. John Morgan Studio and David Chipperfield Architects have shown the atmospheric possibilities of interior architectural space. Graphic identity helps to shape an atmosphere, here demarcating the gallery as a calming and tranquil place of contemplation, a hallowed space above our most basic needs. But there is a lingering tension in the relationship between design identity and spatial atmosphere, because Morgan and Chipperfield’s vision of the building is in contrast to its present reality.
The most successful sign would be practically invisible. At Turner Contemporary, signs are everywhere, not quite invisible. They seemed to be fighting for quiet and stillness. With the half term crowds, the place was heaving and there was little space for solitude. The building was a glass jar filled with fireflies. And as much as we may wish to contemplate Turner while looking out to sea, Ian Whybrow confided wryly at the end of our conversation, the simple truth remains that the more pressing matter for all of us will always be how to find the toilet or where to get a cup of coffee.