Architecture: Restraint this way, confusion that way: Signs should be an integral part of a building or street, and not a brash after-thought, says Rick Poynor

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The Independent Culture
An ocean of ink has been expended on proposals for the nation's most reviled arts complex, but it could be that a far simpler and cheaper answer to the South Bank's legendary unfriendliness is staring us in the face. Has anyone paused to consider the quality and positioning of the area's direction signs? The effects can be extraordinary.

When, for example, new signs were installed in Victoria underground station a few years ago, research showed that many passengers believed the entire station had been refurbished.

Traditionally, signing was an integral part of architecture; but that tradition has been lost as we rely more on temporary and less on fixed points of information. Architects appear to have lost interest in signing anyway. And, even if they were more concerned, they could never adequately resolve the contemporary city's insatiable need for free-flowing information. In a busy urban thoroughfare, a dense linguistic web of street names, road signs, directional signs, shop fascias, advertising hoardings, company names and logos, illuminated signs and electronic displays fuses to form a graphic carapace which, at street level, can overwhelm architecture.

Inside complex buildings, the story is much the same. On the whole, architects do not like signs disfiguring their masterpieces, believing that their brilliant planning will ensure an intelligent movement of people.

'The way a place is planned is absolutely influential on the signing,' says Chris Ludlow, chairman of the Sign Design Society and partner in Henrion, Ludlow & Schmidt, which has worked for London Transport and the British Airports Authority (BAA). 'Signing designers are seldom brought in early on. Architects sometimes think in terms of people finding their way through, but that's often not their primary motivation.' BAA has recently adopted Ludlow's recommendation that signing must be considered from the outset of any new building project.

As airports remake themselves as surrogate cities, and stations blur into shopping centres, so they duplicate the clashes of interest - what do we most need to know? - found in the cityscape. In stations such as Victoria and London Bridge, the most urgent graphic messages have nothing to do with missing your train. They emanate from the likes of Sock Shop and Tie Rack, and whatever we think of this, they are here to stay.

''Shops in these environments are so successful,' says Ludlow, 'that one would have a difficult time arguing them out of the picture. I often describe signing as a battleground because so many interests converge.' Here too, though, architecture can help.

Liverpool Street, London, completed in 1991, is one station with its information priorities right. Its most imposing feature is the departure indicator, which spans the concourse. Direction signs and ticket machines are centrally placed. The Knickerboxes and Tie Racks are in a secondary information layer on either side of the concourse; their graphics are modest and consistently sized - easy to find but not permitted to shout.

Outside such self-contained environments, it is hard to make much sense of the visual confusion wrought by modern signing. Many have noted the dreary, kit-of-parts sameness visited by the Eighties' 'retail revolution' upon the high streets of Britain. There are those optimistic enough to believe we might still reset the clock to a gentler, less homogeneous time. Ken Garland, one of Britain's best-known designers, argues that the time has come to acknowledge this 'superfluous graphics' for the place-nullifying intrusion it is and start removing it from our highways, towns and public buildings. 'It would require only an act of public will,' he urges. 'What should be the designer's response? Quite simply: restraint.'

An admirable sentiment, though it has to be said that Garland's fellow designers have not exactly rushed to recant. Chris Ludlow points out that signing is subject to the same planning restrictions as building and is assessed by the same officers. While the letter of the law is doubtless observed, this does not stop the imposition of monstrosities - buildings and signs - in our streets, including carbuncular art galleries inscribed with the names of superstores in vast letters. 'We need more sensitivity in application,' says Ludlow, 'rather than fiercer restraints.'

Another problem we face with signs, as with our architecture, is how to conserve the best of the past, while designing boldly for the future. Next time you pass through Oxford Circus, squint up at the street names introduced to match the mock-imperial bins, railings and lamps. From across the road it is almost impossible to read these tiny, gold-on-blue, Theme Park upgrades. But someone, including presumably the designers, believed they were a necessary improvement on the old, unmistakeable, black-on-white City of Westminster version. You never notice signs until they don't work.

Rick Poynor is the editor of 'Eye' magazine.

(Photograph omitted)