“AND FLASH GORDON WAS THERE IN SILVER UNDERWEAR”

Book cover I have again spent money, again foolishly, on one of the pretended guides to signage design, this time with a baldfaced title that promises a lot – Signage and Wayfinding Design: A Complete Guide to Creating Environmental Graphic Design Systems by (Ms) Chris Calori. And, like Craig Berger’s ostensibly complete manual, there just isn’t enough genuine information to learn from and use here.

It’s a Wiley book, which probably means an unflattering contract for the writer. I base this on the fact that copyright is ascribed to Wiley, not Calori. It’s purely suggestive, but it’s never a good sign. To their credit, the copyright notice does mention that some reproduction is legally permitted, so maybe Wiley are not, in point of fact, notorious copyright assholes.

Production notes

  • The choice of too-large Univers 45 (with fake fractions and inconsistent tracking) is poorly suited to the topic matter, as is the Microsoft Word remnant of no indents and a blank line between paragraphs. (If it didn’t work onscreen, I wouldn’t use one of the two. And if you’re using a primitive browser like IE6, you won’t see the other one.) The book is a mere 210 pages and seems padded as a result, probably because it is.

  • B&W photography is low contrast and washed out. Certain shots, like those of the ’84 L.A. Olympics, are a sin to reproduce in monochrome. Others, like photos of brainstormed drawings tacked up on bulletin boards, are too low-contrast and -resolution to be legible. The author essentially admits (p. 13) that Wiley cheaped out on colour printing.

  • Despite the foregoing, it’s a hardcover book, the actual hard cover being elaborately printed in colour. False economy, I should think.

  • Beautiful sign-construction diagrams are shown as mere thumbnails (using Rotis! and Tekton!) instead of the double-truck spreads they should be. They’re too small (“vague”) to learn from. Tell us and show us.

  • The pages stick together, and many of them are ink-smudged as though pressed together at a certain region on the page while still wet.

  • Calori credits a “voluntary manuscript reviewer” and a “research intern.” Next time, pay a professional.

Fear of a detailed planet

[M]ost of us practitioners have forged ahead on the fly, learning by doing, especially since no programs granting an EGD degree currently exist in the United States. This book aims to fill this knowledge gap by putting forth what I believe is the first formal methodology for solving signage and wayfinding problems,” Calori writes, rather forgetting the presence of Arthur and Passini’s Wayfinding: People, Signs and Architecture in her own bibliography. But I took her at her word: I expected an instruction manual, and what I got was half-assed advice, delivered cheerfully, that nonetheless kept the keys to the castle safely locked in her professional practice, Caroli & Vanden-Eynden. (He’s her spouse, by the way.) She’ll raise a question in the book you paid for, but if you want the answer, you’ll have to hire her.

There’s too much wishy-washiness. Just pick any page at random and check.

  • “The visual aspects of a sign program are deeply influenced by its [surely ‘their’] informational aspects, so it’s important to….”

  • [I]t’s impossible to decree the appropriate amount of detail for any given project….”

  • [T]he appropriate level of detail and formality of the specifications varies with each project. An entire book could be written about specifications….”

  • “Accordingly, a message should communicate the essential information needed by the sign user in as concise a manner as possible…. Accordingly, destination names must be reviewed and edited for conciseness and clarity….”

  • “Additionally… So, there’s no doubt that… Keep in mind, however… Therefore, it’s important to… And, generally… It’s important to note… It’s also important to remember….” (all p. 112).

Whatever you do, never ask Chris Calori whether she’d like vanilla or chocolate.

The eternal question: How do you build a sign?

I am still waiting for any resource anywhere to explicitly document how a company manufactures signs of many types, and how, exactly and in detail, to specify such manufacture. The book is full of washed-out photos of construction of a set of Amtrak signs, which are all very nice, but how about telling us how you got there? Why a hinged door? What’s that inside, a transformer? Why a concrete base? What’s the attachment hardware? Nice aluminum “airfoils,” but how were they made? (How do you order the aluminum?)

Or would all that be proprietary?

Type

When it comes to typography, Calori is so dangerously vague as to sound like an ignoramus.

This really says it all (emphasis added): “Scientific studies have been conducted on typeface legibility, but it’s not the purpose of this book to go into such technical detail.” (Same with the ADA’s requirements for signage fonts, which “it’s not the intent of this book to exhaustively delineate.” Oh, and colour, where the “intent” is not to “provide an extensive discussion of the complex and multihued subject of colo[u]r.” And also “green design and materials,” which are “beyond the scope of this book.”) The facts are available, but it isn’t our purpose or intent to teach them to you.

As far as she’s concerned, every typeface, even “novelty” fonts, is just as good as any other. Especially Frutiger, of course, shown in umpteen photos and illos.

  • Kudos for almost banning the electronic scrunching or widening of type. But, you know, only “[s]ome graphic designers… consider [it] so heinous as to dub it a ‘type crime.’ ” And the rest of them are the ones building your signs.

  • Would you use Adobe Garamond with ranging figures on an interior directional sign? Well, one “richly-detailed graphic treatment” that is shown in the book does. I love the little 1s shaped like Is and 0s like Os. Nobody’s ever gonna mix those up.

  • “Both the word to and the dash are widely recognized, hence acceptable to use, but one method of the other must be chosen.” And if your sign fabricators are all Windows guys who look at a dash and see a hyphen? And only give you that? Or space-hyphen-space?

  • If, after deciding on an abbreviation (St., yes; Arpt., no), does “use it consistently throughout a sign program” mean you can never spell the word out?

  • Did you know that “in American English, which has a Roman-based alphabet [what, no italics?], the standard character set consists of about 225 characters, including punctuation and diacritical marks”? (Can you name a single diacritic used in American English?) And did you know Korean “can consist of upward[s] of 20,000 characters” even though the Unicode Korean blocks number only about 11,000?

  • “Many existing faces” – like what, Frutiger? – “are highly legible and well-proven in signage applications.” They may be widely used, but if they are proven, where are your test results?

  • Wow, a whole lesson on serif vs. sans. And serif is of course illustrated by a photograph of the Pantheon. In a novel twist, serifs are described as “ ‘feet.’ ”

  • “Although sansserif letterforms are visually simpler… sansserif typefaces are relative newcomers to the typographic scene [sic], with origins in the early 1800s.” Right, and we haven’t gotten used to them in the intervening 200 years? What, if anything, does this mean?

  • [S]erif typefaces are generally better suited for use on signage projects where a traditional look is desired” (vs. “contemporary”). “One of the first questions we ask at my office when we start designing the graphic system for a signage project is: ‘Is this a serif or sansserif project?’ ” Chris Calori, dilettante and decorator. (Love those Garamond numerals!)

  • “Novelty” typefaces “can usually be ruled out for use in a signage program,” but that “is not to say that novelty typefaces should never be used on a signage project” even though “many novelty typefaces are so stylistically errant that they fail to meet the primary purpose of a typeface: To be legible.”

  • Did you know a typeface designed centuries ago and another designed a few years ago could both be “timeless”?

  • Calori is so careless in discussing typography that the following typefaces are illustrated without any indication of suitability for signage: Bodoni, Caslon, Adobe Garamond (love those numerals!), Goudy, Baskerville, and, of course, Times. Since they’re right alongside Avenir, Futura, Gill, Gotham, Meta, and Myriad, one might be led to believe they are equivalent. Is it “well-proven” that they are?

  • She doesn’t have a clue that serifs are not always “too delicate.” I mean, Rockwell? Egiziano? Charter? (But wait: She decries the ADA’s vague term “simple serif,” which “has been interpreted to mean straightforward, unembellished serif typefaces, such as Garamond, Times Roman, Bodoni, and other similar faces.” Who will be the first to tell her she’s itemized three distinct typeface classifications right there?)

  • Calori lists a number of capitalization forms. She misnames the one her book uses and that she describes as “the most common, and most legible” – title case. (Does it consist of “Initial Caps” or “all words, with the exception of so-called ‘helper’ words…, have their initial letters set in upper case”?) Surely the book’s own title-case usage is bulletproof.

    • Typographic Considerations in
      Signage for Nonsighted and
      Low-Sighted People

    • Overview of Sign Graphic
      Application Processes

  • I suppose it is of some modest relief that, while Calori understands that words have outlines, she calls them “ ‘footprints,’ ” which they kind of aren’t, rather than, say, boumas, which they manifestly aren’t. (The stronger the claim to the contrary, the crazier the claimant.)

  • The way you handle halation, never actually named as such in the book, is to add tracking – allegedly. A full page discussing internal sign illumination never mentions the problem. I guess she hasn’t noticed it exists yet. Surprise. And stainless-steel signs never have a glare problem, Calori implies.

  • While lower-case type has descenders, only “many typefaces,” not all, have ascenders. Even Peignot and Hobo have ascenders. How do you write the “Roman” alphabet without ascenders? (Or rather, how does Chris Calori?)

Pictographs

  • Symbol, icon, and pictograph may be synonymous (p. 115), but glyph certainly isn’t. Every letter on a sign is a glyph. So are the same letters in a different font. So is each and every leftward arrow.

  • “Arrows and symbols that are well understood worldwide as directional devices, replacing lengthy verbal indications of direction [sic]. For example, an arrow pointing left is clearly understood to mean ‘turn left’; therefore, the words turn left are typically replaced by a left arrow…. The same is the case for other arrow directions” as depicted in her illustration, which includes only two with one interpretation each (← →). As illustrated, arrows pointing away from each other (↑ ↓) could both mean “straight ahead.” Don’t expect Chris Calori to get you where you’re going.

  • Rectangular, circular, and absent backgrounds on pictos are deemed equivalent, as are positive and negative colour choices. I thought circles meant prohibition and squares meant information. And yet another plug for the 30-year-old AIGA/DOT system, including its outdated accessibility “glyphs.”

  • But then again, she completely flubs a discussion of the wheelchair-access symbol, explicitly insisting that it can be redrawn and that the “active” version is just as good. Because each and every glyph – here I’m using the correct sense – is just as good, after all. Yet “symbol vocabularies from typefoundries and clip-art libraries” – Microsoft Paint? – “are typically not stylistically compatible with the AIGA/DOT and SEGD vocabularies.”

  • While she runs a sidebar by Phil Garvey on his arrow research, she ignores his results – that arrows are not interchangeable and have performance characteristics. Then again, she ignores the same thing about fonts. Calori also explicitly authorizes you to draw your own arrows, as each is “a relatively simple geometric shape.”

  • I think it’s just nuts to describe arrows as Helvetica parallel, Helvetica perpendicular, and Optima perpendicular. That last is apparently “compatible with serif typography.” Perhaps you’d like a fleuron or a fist instead?

  • Just as she refused to ban the use of “novelty typefaces,” neither will she ban the use of shaftless arrows (rotated equilateral triangles) even after declaring they “communicate less clearly” and sometimes aren’t seen as arrows at all.

Multilingualism

Calori’s examples of bilingual signs would be considered atrocities in Canada or any officially bilingual country, or really in any country not overrun with smug unilinguals. All the Latin-script examples she uses display the second language smaller and/or in different case, which couldn’t be more clear in putting you down. And all those Latin-script examples are in English and Spanish; guess which one’s inferior. As far as she’s concerned, “other countries” only ever have one “native language,” conjuring images of villagers in loincloths who speak but a single tongue.

And Chinese! Well, it “is now also commonly read horizontally from left to right”! (What will happen when she finds out about Mongolian?) And a Chinese/English example shown has seriously mismatched font weights and uses upper case, a semiliterate approach on a good day. (Did you know that, in Chinese, each character represents “a complete word or concept”? Remember, she said each. Think of that when you see how they transliterate your own name.)

Where is this (uncited) research showing “that signage displaying more than three languages is confusing and ineffective”?

There’s a complete lexicon of U.S. and British English terms, the latter being used “in countries that historically were in the sphere of British influence,” but also some that were not. The complete lexicon is exit/way out, restroom/WC or toilet, elevator/lift, garage/car park (not actually two words), and of course center/centre and theater/theatre. Wait till she hits Canada, where one takes the elevator from the parking garage to the main-floor washroom before enjoying a night out at the theatre.

But to her credit, she does tell you to get your translations up front in the development process so you can plan for increased (or, she doesn’t say, decreased) text width.

Other notes

  • Calori thinks you should give the client as many design comps as the client wants (p. 23), and thinks the risk that a client would flatly reject a lone comp is a reason not to give the client only one. This is almost as bad as working on spec. Even Calori admits that showing multiple comps to a client encourages tinkering and that the client may insist on the comp you hate. But she’s OK with that, because I really don’t think she’s put her foot down even once in her life. If a client rejects your comp, you bill the shit out of them, then fire them. You’re the designer; you set the rules for design.

  • There’s a lot of discussion of her company’s own projects, like the Amtrak Acela signage, which, she notes in a lengthy paragraph, created “a strong, unique brand image” and won a passel of awards.

    Eight of the 34 projects illustrated in the limited colour pages are credited to Calori’s design shop. It’s one project each for everybody else.

  • Calori commits the sin nominated by Natalia Ilyin – imputing a linear history of (environmental) graphic design. I’m pretty sure those are the cave paintings of Lascaux she’s got there (p. 2; they make a reprise on p. 115), alongside ancient Rome, current Greece, and “unplanned signage in a public building’s elevator lobby.” Surely the first led inexorably to the second, third, fourth?

  • Rather amazingly, Calori states (p. 6; also 76–77) that, if you’re confused or lost, “the signs themselves aren’t the problem; they can only do so much to guide you through… the underlying problem,” a bad layout. Yet she believes designers should be called in “one or two phases” after “the architectural design process,” and that it’s possible to be called in too early (“before floorplans are frozen or locked”).

    Now, despite their little mistakes, Pentagram and Entro proved with Pearson Airport that getting in there early can prevent stupid layouts from happening (Pamela Young, “Signs of Flight,” Applied Arts, March/April 2004):

    For example, in the original plans the signage team perceived a problem with the placement of elevators at points where two bridges connect the parking garage to the terminal. “We looked at it from a wayfinding perspective and said, ‘These elevators can’t go here. It’s not a logical way to do it,’ ” [Wayne] McCutcheon recalls. At first the architects balked at going through the time-consuming (and therefore expensive) process of revising the plan solely on the strength of Pentagram and Entro’s recommendation. So the signage team developed a scheme for the original configuration and presented it to [the airport president]. “He took a look at it and said, ‘Why do we need to have all these signs here?’” McCutcheon recalls. “And we said, ‘Well, they need to be there because of how the elevators are configured.’ And he said, ‘Who the hell configured the elevators that way?’ ” In the end, the position of the elevators was changed to improve the terminal’s navigability.

    So in fact, yes, you want to be in there calling bullshit on the architects if need be – and early.

  • She gives us useful advice about grouping related sign types into actual sign types, though she doesn’t realize the ambiguity involved in that name (say “sign categories,” please, so we won’t think of fonts). And the example she gives is a screamingly illegible printout of a listing of sign categories – set in the lazy signmaker’s favourite typeface, Frutiger, with dozens of repeated words and thick rules under every line. I guess she’s an information architect only at the macro level. Spiekermann could make a better design in five minutes. I’ve seen a few of these sign-category printouts, and all of them are hard to understand and too replete with private acronyms.

  • The authoress specifies five types (categories?) of signs: Identification, directional, warning, regulatory/prohibitory, operational, honorific, interpretive. That seems like a thorough list.

  • She recommends you ask the client for “clean base plans with the written information removed” (i.e., plans with no words), and complains this might take a while. You can’t hide a layer in AutoCAD?

  • Calori explains the concept of working drawings or design-intent drawings much too late in the process, at Phase 4, Documentation. (This, by the way, is one step before actually placing a bid on a project. Yes, you must fully document the job before you get it.) She also mixes up these drawings with “details intrinsic to the design of the sign graphics and hardware,” which are really construction diagrams.

  • Calori implies (p. 39) that you should just hand over your font files when the job is done. See you in court.

  • She treats the Web as a kind of strange new phenomenon, with lengthy intros to simple URLs. Those should have been trimmed of wwws where possible (www.access-board.gov/adaag/about/index.htm is too long by a third), but then again, when faced with an URL using a hostname other than www, she actually adds http://. Is someone still on IE6?

  • Did you know there is such a thing as a MasterFormat for technical specs? I didn’t. So score one there.

  • Her maps are terrible (blocky Illustrator nonsense), and the type on the maps, sized for Godzilla, is even worse.

  • Are there really “bathrooms” in public buildings?

  • I thought I’d do a quick check of signs illustrated in the book where an arrow pointed somewhere other than away from type (usually toward it). I see this as a rule scarcely ever to be broken: Arrow must not point toward type. Arrows lead you away from the sign, not toward anything. Really, how many signs have you seen with all arrows in one column (pointing hither and yon) and all type in the next column? Easy to understand? No, right? Anyway, I count about a dozen photos that illustrate arrows pointing at type. Calori thinks either method is just fine, but slightly prefers stacking arrows in a column even if they point toward type (pp. 137–138). Add this to her list of mistakes.

  • Calori explains the whole issue of arrow/type alignment with typical clarity (typography… typography… typography… typography… typography):

    [F]or layouts, arrows and symbols can be placed to the left or right of the typography, or be centred with the typography, if the arrows/symbols are positioned above or below the typography. But this is not to say that symbols and arrows are necessarily always paired with each other; often, arrows will be set off from the typography, whereas the symbols will be placed at the end of a line of typography.

  • She wastes a full page, including two full illustrations of a dozen components each, explaining that “messages” can be placed left, right, top, bottom, or centre on a signface. You don’t say! Now which one of these works? How can I find out?

  • Calori explains that heads-up maps (a sign containing a map oriented in the direction you’re facing) have a few logistical problems, especially if they aren’t square. They’re clearly better, she explains, then all but concedes that some clients are going to be too cheap or stubborn to authorize the expense. Stick to your guns here.

  • She uses red as an example of a mandated colour, but fails to explain just how stupid it is for “typographic or pictorial messages of a warning or emergency nature.” (Typically awful writing there.) Your building is on fire. Quick: Will you want to run toward a glowing red blob? (She later explains that red/green differences in exit signage are merely learned and “cultur[al].” No, one of them works and the other doesn’t.)

  • Apart from the discussion of type, the weakest section of the book pertains to colour-coding. She obviously doesn’t know the first thing about it. I would draw people’s attention to pp. 177–179 of Wayfinding: People, Signs and Architecture if you want to learn from the pros. She can’t even explain “colo[u]r[-]perception problems” right.

  • Calori can’t even tell you what “eye level” means. Apparently it’s anywhere from 3 to 6 8 (a pair of numbers, incidentally, the book cannot typeset correctly). But she says the ADA requires wall signs to be located at exactly 5 . Arthur and Passini give eye level a name (InfoBand 1) and specify it at 120 to 160 cm above the floor (3′11″ to 5′1″ ). Overhead signs can be located absolutely anywhere above 6′8″ according to Calori, but solely between 220 and 300 cm for the pros (7′3″ to 9′1″0 ). Do you want the fire-exit sign hanging from the ceiling of Madison Square Garden?

  • “Basically” – “basically”? – “there are three options for lighting signs: Externally, internally, or no lighting.” All signs must be illuminated. She means there are two options for specific illumination rather than relying on ambient light. (Try reading a sign with “no lighting” sometime.)

Signage books: Still total shite

I’m still waiting for a genuinely instructional book on signage design, which is of course only one part of wayfinding. I don’t know enough to write one, but I sure know enough to edit one.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2007.08.19 12:52. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:
https://blog.fawny.org/2007/08/19/caloric/

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