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Defecting designer says the signs are all there

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After seven years training and seven years practising as an architect, four years ago I crossed the great divide.

I lived that closeted existence of the architectural profession, thinking we could do everything.

We designed our own logos, business cards, interiors, signage, etc.

In a professional capacity I rarely came across a consultant from another facet of the design world.

This all changed when I first defected and went to work for a design consultancy. It was an exciting but humbling experience, working with graphic, fashion, interior and product designers. I realised that each of us had our place in the world of design and we all had something to offer in different ways. Design of any sort should be an integrated process and we can all learn from each other. Most importantly, I learnt that architects can't do everything!

I am now working for a consultancy which specialises in wayfinding and sign design.

This was not a subject that featured in our architectural education. The movement of people through a building was, however, something we were keenly aware of. We designed space to encourage people to instinctively find their way around a building.

Working as a wayfinding consultant, I have learned to understand space and the public's perception of it in a completely different way. People do not understand space in the same way as trained architects do. The signals that are so obvious to us are not interpreted by the general population. People want, need and expect signs to give them confidence to move through a space.

The fact that there is a rooflight above them is not enough to tell them that the lift they are waiting for only goes down.

Traditionally, architects have stayed away from designing an integrated sign strategy within their buildings. The purer the architectural form the better, and signage is clutter. Once the building (particularly if it is a public building) is handed over to the end user, the client usually recognises the need for a clear information strategy. A quickfix solution is generally adopted with a minimal budget. Often by this stage the architect's involvement is over and the result is a plethora of cheap signs in ill-considered locations. No wonder architects hate them.

This could all be avoided by recognising the need for a welldesigned sign strategy when the initial budgets are being put together. Our most successful projects have been when we were involved in the project from the outset and worked side by side with the architect. Unfortunately both of these situations are rare. As wayfinding consultants, we do not make our money from selling signs - we sell elegant, considered design solutions and firmly believe that less is more.

I hope that if I ever decide to return to the other side, this experience of viewing my profession from behind enemy lines will make me a better architect.

In the mean time I continue to pester my architect friends (I still have some! ) to allocate more of their precious budget to signage.

Kirsty Morrison, The Holmes Wood Consultancy

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