Gaining mileage from signage
Are you making the most of the signage at your facility? From high-quality safety signs to imaginative directional pointers, effective signs can improve business performance and even generate income! JOHN POWER looks at your legal obligations in signs and goes in search of inspired signage concepts.
There is a famous Simpsons episode devoted to Homer’s obsession with public signage. One scene shows a street cluttered with gratuitous signs – Homer is posing with yet another sign that reads: Sign Ahead.
Certainly, signs are ubiquitous features of contemporary workplaces and streetscapes, but it would be a mistake to think the high density of placards, signposts and decals has diminished the power of signage to enhance safety, drive commerce, or reinforce corporate styles.
In fact, with a little creativity it is possible to use signage as a powerful marketing tool and an important element of overall building design. Contrary to popular belief, many signs in and around large buildings can accommodate plenty of design flexibility and artistic licence… and if facility managers don’t push for innovative signage, then who will?
There are two main categories of signage that are of relevance to facility managers: there is the statutory safety signage that ‘must’ appear in specific settings and locations (among these are regulatory signs forbidding or requiring certain practices, or warning signs alerting people to hazards and dangers); and at the other extreme there is voluntary or courtesy signage, designed and installed at the FM’s discretion, highlighting such things as shopping zones, locations of prominent retail or service outlets, car parking ownership or reservation nomenclature, and a range of other general notices including opening hours, tenancy lists, visitor registration procedures, motivational signage and the like.
It is interesting to note that there is no single ‘signage bible’ to which FMs can refer for guidance about all permissible or recommended signage applications and specifications; however, there are some broad categories that you should be aware of.
The blueprint for statutory safety signs, i.e. the mandatory signs relating to important health and safety issues, is Australian Standard AS 1319–1994: Safety signs for the occupational environment, which stipulates a comprehensive range of signage types, generic designs and common applications. Copies of AS 1319–1994 and other Standards mentioned throughout this article are available from SAI Global; see contact details below. Where basic safety issues apply, Standards go in to great detail about preferred signage dimensions, in some cases referring to font selection, letter spacing, universally accepted symbols, as well as background colouring. Examples include exit signs and prohibition signage such as ‘Do Not Enter’.
According to Ian Heselwood, product manager for the Queensland-based signage company Signtec, most essential signage of this kind is specified by architects, but facility managers should be aware of their obligations when upgrading the fitouts of older buildings.
“When we’re talking about signs that you ‘must have’, we are referring to signs for fire doors, exits, hazardous chemicals, hearing protection – the kinds of things that will require signage regardless of the type of occupant business,” Heselwood explains.
“If in doubt, usually it’s the building inspector for your local council who will advise about what signage you need, or the fire department can tell you what fire-related signs you need. With fire signs there is little flexibility.” Compulsory signage, Heselwood notes, is required to indicate the location of fire extinguishers (generally at least 50mm lettering on a contrasting background) and fire doors alerting occupants not to obstruct doorways.
Interestingly, Heselwood says mandatory signage for new buildings includes many fresh designs, most obviously the pictorial exit sign showing a stick figure running towards a door. “You can’t use a (written) ‘EXIT’ sign any more in a new building,” he says.
Similarly, special mandatory signage has been designed for disabled people. “With disabled parking signage there is a universally accepted symbol, and otherwise we like to present white lettering on a blue background; blue is easier to read for people with impaired vision.”
Nevertheless, there is often ‘some’ leeway in terms of the permitted sizing and content of selected safety signage; for instance, the familiar sign for Danger (a black triangle with horizontal base against a yellow background) may, if desired, be accompanied by the word ‘Danger’.
While AS 1319–1994 addresses fundamental safety signs, there are other applications that require reference to additional Standards provisions. A good example is signage designed for placement on footpaths and public flooring areas, which must adhere to AS/NZS 4586:2004 – Slip resistance classification of new pedestrian surface materials. This Standard exists to prevent the installation of slippery signage underfoot; there would be an unwelcome irony in breaking one’s ankle on a ‘Slippery When Wet’ driveway sign!
To make guidelines even more complex, the Building Code of Australia (D3.6) mandates the use of Braille and tactile signage, or raised conventional lettering, in all newly built public (non-residential) structures to identify principal ingress and egress sites, restrooms and appropriate disabled access amenities. The Code, which requires full compliance with AS 1428.1–2001 – Design for access and mobility – General requirements for access – New building work, refers only to new structures.
Bruce Atkins, marketing manager at Visualise Braille & Tactile Signs, a sister company to Signtec, says many facility managers are unaware that special Braille or tactile signage is compulsory in new shopping centres, for example, to identify toilets and showers, access zones, ramps and lifts, etc.
“Although not required officially, it is also a good idea to provide a tactile map of the layout of major public facilities including shopping centres,” he adds. Good examples of such signs are in place at Queensland Museum and Arts Centre and at the main railway stations in Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane.
This kind of signage, of course, is an obvious benefit in healthcare facilities like hospitals.
“The text has to be written in a Helvetica-style sans serif font, with a minimum 2mm letter and word spacing,” Atkins explains.
“As well as being a pleasure to use, the standard range of Visualise Braille & Tactile Signs conform to the Unified Braille Code (UBC), the requirements of the Building Code of Australia (D3.6) and fulfil the requirements of the Australian Standards AS 1428.1-2001. From the very beginning in the mid to late-1990s Visualise has worked within Australian Standards guidelines, and in many cases has surpassed them in the demand to create the best possible product for the end user.”
Like it or not, there are obviously numerous detailed Standards for different types of signage, dependent on the application and location of the signage task. There is even a special Standard (AS 2293.1–2005 Emergency escape lighting and exit signs for buildings – System design, installation and operation), which specifies the requirements for the design and installation of systems of emergency escape lighting and illuminated exit signage intended to illuminate upon failure of supply to the normal lighting! But don’t let all this regulated signage dampen your creative spirits. There are still plenty of opportunities to give your inventiveness a solid workout.
Discretionary signage that does not involve safety is not addressed in AS 1319–1994, and designs and placements are governed by common sense and personal preference. At least half of all signage in most publicly accessible facilities can involve a high degree of personal expression. Of course, facility managers should make sure privately designed signage does not create confusion through close resemblance to safety signage, nor should it contravene social conventions of decency that might breach municipal council planning laws. In other words, no swearing!
Stephen Stanley, from Concrete Graphics in Melbourne, says new products are now available in Australia that have the potential to change (and challenge!) our perceptions of public signage.
An interesting example is Concrete Graphics’ ground signage, which can incorporate any high-resolution digital photo or graphic into a resilient, adhesive sign that sticks to concrete, bitumen and other outdoor ground or wall surfaces.
This signage, as tested by the CSIRO, complies with the abovementioned AS/NZS 4586:2004 non-slip safety guidelines and is designed to last for years while withstanding wear and tear from vehicles and pedestrian traffic. The patented glass bead surface has a tough aluminium foil backing and can be applied in less than a minute like a conventional sticker or decal. It moulds to the surface of asphalt, brick, concrete, tiles, vinyl, marble, timber and many other surfaces, offering facility managers a powerful new tool for showcasing a company’s logo or flagship products.
But don’t stop there! Instead of designating a car parking space, for instance, with the details of a number plate or generic ‘manager’ sign, why not stick a high-resolution photo of the manager’s face to the wall or ground? Alternatively, a company’s iconic product or logo might look magnificent as a ground sign at the threshold of a building. In shared facilities, this kind of signage has great potential as a saleable commodity, with tenants prepared to pay for a ground or wall sign directing customers to their store. Signs, which can be ordered and delivered by mail, cost as little as $5.50 for a 13 square centimetre sign.
Concrete Graphics is being used by some of the largest manufacturers and warehouses in the US for directional signage, safety signage, hazchem, as well as advertising signage. Clients include Proctor and Gamble, Coca Cola and Miller. Even Barrack Obama used it in his presidential campaign. The reaction in Australia has been equally