Conversations about Signage

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Never Stop Wayfinding…Do it for Your Hippocampus!

Conversations About Signage




Over the course of my twelve years teaching within the signage industry, I have had the pleasure of learning many things about architectural signage including the thought, innovation, materials, design and craftsmanship that goes into producing beautiful yet functional signage solutions. For example, I learned and subsequently developed and taught topics related to wayfinding methodology, which has been a dominant organizational core competency throughout my company’s existence.

I recently ran across an article that explored the impact of technology overuse (ex. GPS) on the human brain, and low-and-behold, it led me to a wayfinding related topic that never really occurred to me: the exact part of the brain responsible for thought processes related to wayfinding…the Hippocampus!Picture1

The name Hippocampus is actually based on its resemblance to a seahorse, from the Greek word hippokampus (hippos = “horse” and kampos = “sea monster”). If you were to pull the hippocampus out of a brain you would in fact see the resemblance (please do not try this at home):Picture2

Not the most pleasant image, but now you have a visual reference for this discussion, so we’ll move on.

In addition to the belief that the hippocampus plays a role in forming brand new memories, neuroscientists also believe that the hippocampus controls our ability to navigate, form cognitive maps and spatially orient ourselves, all of which are primary elements of wayfinding processes.

It’s fascinating to better understand where wayfinding takes place in the brain, especially considering that the term wayfinding is still in its relative infancy. Kevin Lynch gets credit for first coining the term wayfinding in his book The Image of the City (1960), in which he writes about his findings from a five-year study of three cities, tracking how people navigated through a city using elements such as travel paths, districts, intersections and landmarks. Romedi Passini and Paul Arthur co-authored Wayfinding: People, Signs and Architecture (1992) to further articulate wayfinding as a spatial problem solving process, including more elements than signage alone, ex. the processes of formulating an action plan to navigate toward the desired destination and then implementing the plan.

If we were to describe how humans typically think when working toward a destination, in the form of a flow diagram, this is one way to represent the process:Picture3

This sample model is consistent with the findings of Lynch, Passini and Arthur, and as noted, the hippocampus supervises these thought processes.

Here’s a summary of what basically happens in the above diagram (moving left-to-right):

  1. Using environmental information and their own cognitive influence, the user builds a mental map (cognitive map) of their perception of the area.
  2. The user also uses spatial orientation to place themselves within their cognitive map, to give them a better sense of where they are situated within their cognitive map.
  3. The user then formulates an action plan of steps required to reach the destination.
  4. The user takes action (ex. moving left, right, straight ahead).
  5. If the user encounters trouble reaching their destination, they will determine what went wrong, amend their action plan, and execute the new plan.
  6. The user confirms that they have reached the desired destination, achieving wayfinding success.

And we now know that all of the above happens under the guidance of our friend the hippocampus!

Going back to the earlier technology/GPS reference to the hippocampus, I researched a number of articles that referenced the same well-known study published in 2000, in which it was found that London taxi drivers had a larger (with more gray matter) hippocampus than non-taxi drivers. It was concluded that taxi drivers had a larger hippocampus because they were constantly building cognitive maps along with their vast knowledge of the layout of the city. So, one can conclude that those who constantly think through wayfinding challenges can build and maintain a stronger memory and navigational skills.

On the other hand, there’s not enough evidence to firmly conclude that reliance on technology, such as GPS, will contribute to atrophy of the hippocampus. However, studies have indicated that we should understand the possibility that over-reliance of technology, including not using our God-given abilities to consistently build cognitive maps, spatially orient ourselves and make full use of our memory, could result in diminished cognitive and memory functions later in life.

As both a wayfinding provider and user, I enjoy the challenge of solving spatial problems with my mind, while appreciating technology that has bailed me out at as well. Wayfinding technology continues to evolve and we should embrace and consider new technologies that make life easier, more efficient and safer. Perhaps moderation, as with most things in life, is a reasonable approach that enables us to rely on technology as needed, but encourages us to use our minds and spatially solve our problems consistently and as often as possible.

So, get out there and give your hippocampus a regular and challenging wayfinding workout, it may very well thank you for it!


Andy Levine 2017




Graphic Design in Signage – who would have thunk it?

Conversations About Signage


When I studied for my Associates Degree in Graphic Design I did not give much thought to the reality of what I would do with it once I graduated. Of course, I had dreams and aspirations of wonderful and weird graphics designs that I would achieve but which forum they would appear in, I had no clue. The day came that I graduated and my foray into the labor market began. When I placed my resume on employment sites, proudly announcing my Graphic Design skills to the world, I had little idea of where the opportunity would come from and it was with a great deal of skepticism that I took a call from ASI Signage Innovations indicating an interest in me and my graphic design skills – signage? Seriously?


I knew nothing of signage at all or even thought there was an industry for it. Who takes notice of signs? Someone really makes them?? When I was in college we were taught about different industries or enterprises that would suit our Graphic Design skills, like print shops or magazine companies, but nothing about signage. However, coming out of school, it was impressed upon me that finding gainful employment was now my paramount preoccupation so I went to my very first interview at ASI Signage Innovations and was intrigued about the possibilities to firstly, fulfill the mission of securing gainful employment but secondly, it seemed to present an opportunity to practically engage all the graphic design skills I had academically secured.


I found that my first job out of college was not so different from the classroom, but add four cups of coffee every day. We have deadlines to fulfill with sign designs, much like turning in homework except my homework gets turned into a really cool sign that I actually created!  This is all completely new to me, I’m still learning different techniques for designing, I’ve even got to the point of making an “idea board” from signs I’ve seen that I really like so I can have inspiration and ideas for future designs.



Initially, I was nervous about the sign design process because of all the “rules” or guidelines required to make certain signs, including a simple room sign. With designing a room sign there are size, font, color, and artwork guidelines to follow, but who knew about the ADA? In fact, I had no clue that braille was so important when designing a room sign or the fact that it was even required. My professors in college never mentioned braille at all in graphic design. As far as I was concerned braille was used in books for the blind. “Visually impaired” – never heard the term before.


“Sign families” – another new term for my vocabulary. There are so many different signs out there for different establishments and locations within the facilities. I was trained in college on typography and was taught that every font has a time and a place to be used, such as sans-serif font faces, mainly used for room signs so people can read the text easily. There can’t be too much text on a sign. I was taught in college that the human brain can only handle about 69 words on a line before a person gets lost in the text structure, and too small of text can be difficult to read from far distances.picture2

When designing signs almost anything is possible, of course within the “rules”. You can print on a material that looks like concrete, real wood, or you can make a sign have a 3D effect. I enjoy designing signs because of the wide range of printing options that can be done to the sign to give it a 3D effect or a certain material or color. When I am designing signs for our sign samples I usually have free range of my designs, but not- too-crazy in detail. Each design I make is hand drawn in Adobe Illustrator and put onto a mock up design I made to give the printer a visual of what we would like to print. Designs cannot be too small with lots of detail because it won’t be seen properly. For smaller sign designs I use simplistic designs with little detail so they are able to be seen without having to look too closely at the sign. At the end of the day my designs require a lot of work and I feel a great sense of accomplishment when I see the end-result and see the final printed version of my sign.


So, it’s a new world for me, and hopefully a “sign” of many years to come in this wonderful industry.


Kathryn Dault 2016



Computerized Vinyl Cutting

Conversations About Signage


Computerized Vinyl Cutting

or The Past Shape of the Future

I first glimpsed the future of the sign industry after climbing into the back of a van sometime during the summer of 1983.
I was a new Design Director in Bay Area, at the time. The local sign supply house brought a new Gerber-IVB over, dragged an extension cord inside the shop and fired it up.
The gadget was pretty basic looking, as you see in a catalog pic from the time:


The old time sign painters just shook their heads and declared it to be the greatest abomination ever invented. In a few years, though, none of those guys were still around.
The crude metal shell hid pretty sophisticated and long-wearing machinery. There’s a chance one is gathering dust in your own shop.
With it, there was no such thing as loading a file and letting it rip. Nope, you had to keyboard one of the 12 proprietary fonts, each more crudely designed and letter-spaced than the other. A horrific version of Helvetica came with the machine but you had to buy others as plug-in font cards. To boot, this was the first time you could curve, squash or expand lines to fit, which led to all manner of text never before seen in nature.
Remember, Apple didn’t introduce the first Mac until 1983-84 and with it, the beginnings of a wide spread appreciation of type. Up to then, typography was specialized knowledge common only to professional art directors, sign painters and typesetters.
I contend the personal computer (especially the Mac) and the Gerber-IVB produced the first great disruption in the sign industry in hundreds of years. Before then, a lettering brush was the primary tool.
The groundwork had been laid a few years before by the introduction of what many grey heads still call Vinyl Die-Cut Letters.
3M produced self-adhesive vinyl sheet early on. Several manufacturers adapted the print finishing technique of die-cutting. They used old, sheet-fed letterpress equipment to cut individual characters, one at a time, at a pretty quick rate. Our pre-punched paper supplier still uses similar equipment.
One supplier in particular, Simple Space-Rite of Phoenix, still in existence, was critical to the development of our exterior fiberglass line.

picture2Original 1966 logo Depicting Simple Space-Rite’s Flagship Product


We would order just the characters they needed, this time cut from low-tack frisket material and pre-spaced on slick paper tiles. They were laid out on the fiberglass sign after painting with the graphics color. Then, after applying the background color, the letters were peeled off leaving correct and defined letterforms. A Matthews Paint matte topcoat over all and the result was integral, subsurface graphics far better than hand-cut or even Gerber output could provide.
In fact, the accuracy of the type-forms on our exterior signs was one of the selling points to designers then and a justification for a higher price than just about any other exterior sign at the time.
Another justification for the high price was (and still is) the amount of skilled handwork involved in their production. That, along with improvements in the vinyl itself, led to its long, slow decline in popularity beginning during a sharp economic downturn in the late ‘80’s.
Coming forward a few years, it wasn’t until the early 1990’s there were utility programs allowing virtually any file from Adobe Illustrator or CorelDraw to drive cutters. And, frankly, it wasn’t until a bit later dependable vinyl sheet appeared that didn’t shrink after a time, leaving behind a nasty adhesive and dirt halo.
Now, we cut and install vinyl with impunity in many different flavors. It wasn’t always this easy.


So what can we learn from this trip down memory lane?

There’s no Sense in Fighting the March of Technology

It’s bigger than us all.

Between 1950 and 1995, the changes wrought in all the graphic arts industries were unprecedented. Gutenberg would have felt right at home in a graphic design studio in the early ‘50’s. He could have picked up familiar tools and produced designs with the best of them.
However, that familiarity would have been short lived. With the entry of photocomposition, Letraset transfer type and IBM electric typewriters, things changed rapidly. Whole rooms full of skilled workers retired, were laid off or, for a lucky few, retrained.
The same happened with sign painters. As soon as the Gerber and plotters took hold, they were gone too.
The only way to survive using traditional techniques would be to reinvent and market yourself as an “artist,” practicing an arcane art for a select few. The meat and potatoes work went to new technology users who probably had no idea of their craft origins.
Many of the changes happened during economic downturns. Then, it made more sense to invest in machines than hire staff.
The best choice is to continually investigate and learn new technologies. Beware of those who either criticize on the basis of “quality” (technique only gets better as it matures).
An example: I’m just old enough to remember when phototypesetting, or “cold” output replaced hot lead (which had, in turn, replaced Guttenberg-like individual characters some 30 years before). I remember old timers railing against the newer typesetting that emerged from developer tanks as “just not the same quality.”
I remember when I moved to New York City in the early 1990’s and was amazed to find that the Macintosh and Desktop Publishing that was so common in Northern California, was derided by many New York designers “just not the same quality” as phototypesetting.
Some of these people were boyhood heroes of mine so, for a time, I believed them—at least until I realized what they were complaining about wasn’t type “quality” at all. In New York City, there was a robust support industry of phototypesetters who would, for a price passed on to the client, turn around typesetting in a couple of hours and messenger it back. The designer would then pour over galleys with an attitude of critical connoisseurship and mark them for another attempt at typographic perfection. This practice, although maddening for the night-shift typesetter, led to profitable overtime, cost overruns and, for a lucky few, the famed three-martini lunches.
In those halcyon days, all you needed in for capital investment as a graphic designer (or sign designer) was little more than a drawing table, a t-square and a triangle. An impressive office space (within bicycle messenger range of typesetters and photographers) could be the biggest expense.
Whether my grousing colleagues realized it or not, all that would come to a screeching halt with the entry of the Mac. All it took was another economic downturn and clients refused point blank to pay for endless typographic revisions, among other billable expenses.
All of a sudden, it became necessary to buy a Mac, a laser printer and expensive software like Quark and Adobe Illustrator. It became really expensive to be a designer. As a result, you’d be amazed at the fall-off in typographic quality during the transition. Equally interesting is how fast many designers deemed Mac typography, and their own meager operator skills, as “Just Fine.”
Never ending investment had reared its head graphic design and sign industries and hasn’t let up since. Resignation is the only rational response. It’s the price of success.



Ken Ethridge, AIA, RAS

ASI Business Development Manager




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