What goes around comes around, says Ian Cartlidge, pointing in the direction of Lord's cricket ground. The director of graphic designer Cartlidge Levene had to hone visitor flows and visual impact to a fine art with new signs for the home of cricket since 1788. Making people go where you want them to is not easy. When you also have to unify one of the most famous groups of modern and old buildings, the job can become murderous. It also takes time. Last year's riba client of the year, Marylebone Cricket Club, approached Cartlidge in 1994. Not long before, its most noteworthy building had been the nineteenth-century brick pavilion with Old Father Time's silhouette gyrating in the wind. Lord's skyline now billows with white fabric from Hopkins' Mound Stand and Grimshaw's linear Grand Stand. Future Systems' NatWest Media Centre is the latest addition, and peeps back to the red bricks from where W G Grace padded up around 100 years before.
This complexity of old and new is not lost on Cartlidge, even though his knowledge of the game wouldn't rate highly on the black and white scoreboard. 'Lord's is such a historic and sacred place, like a gentlemen's club in some parts and a high-tech multicultural hub in others.' Interiors range from the dark intimacy of the mcc to the light and airy press pod.
'Finding the right aesthetic is only part of the problem. You have to deal with physical aspects, like fixings and datum lines. Graphics must be consistent and yet the signs have to be adaptable. The ground has been developing for years and the signage, like the site, is evolving. Both are living things.'
The key to its success was a sign masterplan that took in the graphic language and the evolving site. Designers worked with the architects from the earliest stages of the project to avoid the kind of aesthetic clash that can happen when signs are tacked on at the end, with no architectural impact and only marginally more cash set aside.
'Signs are often left to the last minute and get the worst budget, which is a disaster for the architecture,' says Cartlidge, whose London firm recently gave Architects Registration Board a new-look logo and did graphics for riba publications and the Stirling Prize. 'You end up with the add- on syndrome of cobbling together a sign after everyone else has gone home. You must work with architects at an early stage to understand the site context. It cannot be done with a visit and a few photos.'
Cartlidge Levene hit the existing signs for six, ruthlessly cutting them back in number and clutter. On average 20 signs were replaced by one with specially designed sans serif type on a background to match the cleanest and smoothest of cricket whites. There are only three main site signs in the ground. The rest highlight a particular area and project from walls, wrap-around steel columns and loop from curving upstands.
The goal was to provide an overview of a ground with a complicated hierarchy of space. Public terraces flank strictly no-go areas like the mcc Long Room. Where tens of thousands come to watch test matches, thousands turn up to a county game, hundreds to an mcc function and maybe only dozens for a knock about in the cricket school designed by David Morley Architects. Visitors must know where to go and where they are not meant to go.
And everybody wants to go to Future Systems' media centre, though how many make a mental note of the signs is another matter. Yet these ones proved the tallest order for the designers, who broke some of their own rules, says Cartlidge without a trace of guilt. 'The centre is a unique and special place with a pale-blue inside, curved soft finishes and lush carpet. This dictated how the signs would look.'
Curved cast-resin plaques share the same shade of blue as the walls and hug them as if they were pressed out of their surface. 'You read the relief of the form coming out of the wall as much as its content. It is a small centre - we could work with such subtleties and test the sign system to its limit.'
Cartlidge Levene's signs at Lord's could prove timely and very cost-effective: other factors are going to test all sign design to the limits.
The Disability Discrimination Act came into force last October and fines will be enforced from this April. It outlaws discrimination, whether on access to buildings or how that access is flagged up. Providers have to make 'reasonable provision'.
Ignore it at your peril, warns the Sign Design Society, which is urging clients and architects to look more closely at how their projects are signposted. The group is made up of architects, engineers and graphic designers dedicated to improving the quality of signs. Frank Landa, a steering group member, suggests most architects would be better off giving sign design a miss, without losing sight of the Act.
'Architects often make very bad designers because they are totally familiar with every aspect of the building they have designed. When it comes to signs, they are the last people needing to be directed around their creation. They are the building; it is part of their lifeblood. A sign designer will go in and immediately spot the pitfalls.'
Landa argues the best buildings need no signs. 'Some of the 1930s tube stations are designed in such a way they lead you through without any prodding. Unfortunately, so many of today's buildings are multifunctional with many floors. It is impossible to go without signs.' Such spaces include Heathrow's proposed Terminal 5.
Initial designs led jet-setters on a winding path from check-in to departure lounge over six levels and included eight changes in direction, he says. baa and architects from Richard Rogers Partnership took another look and streamlined the design to re-route the trail over two levels, taking in four changes in direction. This cut sign requirements by half.
Whatever your profession or building, you may need to smarten up your act. The quality of sign design has declined over the years because of the tendency to use too much colour and fancy technology, he says. The human eye can make a visual distinction between 16 million shades and colours. Distinguishing the signs, however, becomes harder when the light gets brighter. Waterloo is 60 per cent brighter than Paddington and fancy electronic signs are less effective.
Yet so many new buildings and spaces are using and abusing sign technology, he suggests. it specialists, often called in to create electronic signs, are too clever by half and also fall short in the sign-design stakes. Landa says: 'it people are used to playing with games and know nothing about readability.' This decline in quality will keep the lawyers very busy as the Act claims its first victims, he forecasts.
'I can see plenty of cases going before the courts and they are going to send alarm bells ringing through the design industry. It is pitiful Britain has to be dragged through the law courts to do something to improve disability provision. The Act has a low priority and until someone is hammered in the courts and has to make expensive changes, it may continue to do so.'
Landa, an electronic engineer who has worked with British Airways and Railtrack, regularly sees up to £60 million lavished on station upgrades. 'We are talking about a few hundreds of thousands of pounds to comply with the Act. The reason it sometimes does not happen is that although clients and architects tell the project manager they want good signs, the manager wants to finish the job with the smallest spend.'
And don't think an elegant sign is necessarily going to guide you through the aesthetic and legal mazes ahead, even if you are lucky enough to prise funds off the project manager. Landa points out the black-and-yellow signs used by baa, as subtle as a runway, but they catch the eye.
'These are not the most beautiful designs, but they are very readable, which is essential in an airport where there is so much clutter.' Nevertheless, the best approach is to combine readability with the designer's subtle touch, he advises. As a rule of thumb, signs shouldn't stick out like sore ones.
The Sign Design Society, 66 Derwent Road, Kinsbourne Green, Harpenden, Herts AL5 3NX, tel 01582 713556