Laura Mark talks to Ian Cartlidge, co-founder of the firm behind the wayfinding at Tate Modern, the Design Museum and the Barbican, about what makes for great signage
How did you start Cartlidge Levene and how did you end up doing the work you do now?
We founded the firm in 1987 and started off mainly working on printed communications and identity. We began working for property development clients and that brought us into contact with architects. We had also started to work on exhibition designs – our first was with the Design Museum.
Then we got an offer to work on Lord’s Cricket Ground. It was a hotbed of amazing architectural design – Future Systems, Nicholas Grimshaw and David Morley Architects were all working there – all these amazing new buildings springing up. The client was a really ardent supporter of good design and architecture. That project got us started off in the field of wayfinding and signage. But over the years we’ve built up a bit of a specialism within the arts and culture sector.
How do you integrate graphic design and architecture?
We always start with a firm understanding of the architecture. That works particularly well when you are working on a project from the beginning – like at Tate Modern, the Design Museum and the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes.
By working in a very integrated way with the rest of the team you develop an intimate understanding of the architectural concept. What you are really doing is helping to reinforce the concept through wayfinding and signage. You are making the building more legible for the visitors.
We are providing a layer within the architecture and obviously we also have the visitor firmly in mind. Our role is to consider how the visitor engages with the building – and that is the architect’s concern as well.
Wayfinding is about understanding the visitor journey
How would you describe the difference between wayfinding and signage?
Wayfinding isn’t just about signs. Signage is one tool we use to create legible environments. Wayfinding starts with the architecture and the way the space is designed. Wayfinding cues and clues can be found within the architecture and the landscape environment.
How do you approach wayfinding in different building types?
Fundamentally it is the same, regardless of typology. It is about understanding the visitor journey through the building and gaining an understanding of how the visitor will use the space. With new buildings we work from plan; but with old buildings we apply observational studies.
How do you ensure that wayfinding and signage are integrated with the architecture?
It is very important for us to establish a close working relationship with the architect. Primarily we are brought in by the client because they want us to do a job based on visitor experience, but you have to work with the architect very closely in order to achieve that successfully.
It is about understanding the physical design language of the buildings, and then designing a graphic palette which responds to that. On some projects we are asked to work on there is no architectural intervention happening at all, for example on our commission for Selfridges. For that project we analysed and observed and interviewed.
How do you make wayfinding and signage clear and easy to understand?
There are certain rules you use in terms of size and legibility of type from certain distances. The Disability Discrimination Act sets out certain requirements that you cannot deviate from. There are also techniques of materiality and lighting you can use. It’s about knowing these and how they make things work. But the key thing is testing and sampling as much as possible in the environment at hand.
We always want to design something that employs the least number of signs possible. We want to have uncluttered spaces. If you start to introduce too many elements, that can be as difficult to understand as not having any signs at all. People ‘turn off’ and don’t see anything.
We are moving more towards wayfinding apps
Have any particular trends emerged in wayfinding in recent years?
There are always trends in design. We are moving more towards wayfinding apps. They are becoming a more common tool and are increasingly sophisticated. But not everyone will use them, so you have to provide for wayfinding within the physical world as well as the virtual one. In the future digital will have much more prominence.
You worked on the legacy-stage wayfinding for the London Aquatics Centre. What did you have to do there?
We were appointed by Zaha Hadid Architects. That building is so intuitive it almost didn’t need any wayfinding to allow you to understand it.
Were there any particular challenges to working on the wayfinding for the Barbican Centre? It is such a well-known and well-loved building.
We worked on the Barbican Centre with Morag Myerscough. It was an interesting project because the Barbican was notoriously difficult to navigate. We also worked really closely with Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM), which had designed a scheme to make the building become legible again. Everyone in the team had a passion for that building. AHMM developed quite serious interventions in terms of how to make the space more legible, but you aren’t really that aware of them because they work so intuitively.
It is still a difficult building to navigate because it has some very dense concrete columns which are in quite close proximity to each other and that closes down sightlines. It has some inherent difficulties. It did mean we could be quite bold with our graphic elements.
Can you describe your work on Tate Modern?
We’ve worked with Tate Modern since the beginning. It is an all-encompassing project. What we do there is really about visitor experience. Yes, it is about navigating the building, but it is also about the materials that a visitor comes into contact with during their visit – from printed maps and guides to apps. Everything has to work together holistically. Because it is by type an industrial building, everything is quite raw and direct. It is all directly applied to the surfaces of the concrete or painted walls – almost in a fly-posted way.
It is very important that you feel like you are entering a former power station. No one is trying to cover that up – that was the genius of Herzog & de Meuron. They really elevated that and made it part of the experience.
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What were the challenges of working on the new Design Museum?
Here it was about understanding the visitor profile and the visit types – whether you were coming for a single exhibition, to spend time browsing in the museum or just to have a coffee or meet friends.
We did a lot of workshops with the museum, getting everyone involved and looking at different spaces and scenarios. That was how we developed an understanding of how people would use the space and where wayfinding or signage was required. At the Design Museum you are working somewhere where design is the absolute driver for the project.
You’ve worked on identities and book designs for many architects. How does your working relationship differ on that kind of project, compared with working on a building?
It is very different. Stanton Williams is a very good example of this. We formed a relationship with them initially by designing their identity and first monograph. It was a fantastic way to get to know them and understand the whole ethos behind the practice and how they operate. At a similar time we also designed the V&A ceramics galleries with them. Our role was to design the visitor interpretation. Good architects will recognise the contribution graphic designers can make to their buildings.
Which architects do you most enjoy working with?
There are lots. We have such a close dialogue and working relationship with Stanton Williams. We worked with Herzog & de Meuron for many years and they are fantastic to work with. We’re doing another museum in Hong Kong with them at the moment. It’s really rewarding when you get to work on other projects and you can continue that working relationship.
Cartlidge Levene projects
- Tate Modern
- Royal College of Art
- London Aquatics Centre
- Bristol Museum and Art Gallery
- Michael Faraday Community School
- Barbican Centre
- Guardian Kings Place Offices
- V&A Ceramics Galleries
- V&A Dundee
- Selfridges Oxford Street