Seizing an Opportunity: Creating ADA-Compliant, Attractive Signage

Do you have a perception that ADA-compliant signage is restricted in its design? That ADA-compliance results in signage that is unattractive and inconsistent?

“I certainly wouldn’t say that at all,” said Brian Pearce, co-director of Watertown, MA-based Sasaki Associates’ Graphics Group. “I would say that the ADA is a great starting point for making signage more universally useful to the widest range of people.

“We don’t consider the ADA as something to battle,” Pearce continued, “we think it is intended to make things more accessible and legible. It is definitely part of making things user-friendly.”

Not only is the ADA an element to work with as opposed to against in your signage design, consider that ADA compliance — which is often thought of as restrictive legislation — is really only part of the equation. The other part, as Pearce alluded, is adding in universal accessibility — designing for users of all abilities. Think of universal design as going above and beyond ADA requirements.

Here’s what experts say are six steps to a signage program that is ADA-compliant, streamlined, cohesive, and attractive.

Six Steps to Compliant Signage
First, lay out a trail of crumbs. That is, lay out the hierarchy of movement from entering the campus to reaching a specific space. For example, visitors need signage that acknowledges they’ve arrived and welcomes them. Then they need signage to direct them to a campus district or parking area. When they exit their vehicles, they need signage that directs them to a pathway or building. At each building, signage must announce the building and entrance. Inside, signage must direct visitors to the lobby, the elevator, the floor, and the specific department, classroom, or office desired. Finally, the signage must take visitors back out again.

“At each decision point, there must be a consistent sign,” explained Pearce. “A typical large campus wayfinding program may have 20 exterior signs directing the visitor to the front door and another 10 or so directing the visitor inside the building. There’s a hierarchy of large to small sign elements at each turn of the way.”

Second, consider all the elements that need to be included in the signage program. Standardization ensures that all signs have a similar look and feel, and are easily recognizable as part of the campus identification system. “But you also need flexibility,” said Michael Harwood, AIA, university architect at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, “because not every sign is going to exactly adapt into the information that needs to be transmitted.”

Another element to include in the signage program is scale. For example, vehicular signage will be larger than pedestrian signage. Scale includes considering placement: Where is each sign going to be placed? On a pole? Behind a sidewalk? High? Low? And scale also includes considering the size of the lettering on each sign. “The most important element, however,” said Harwood, “is taking care to not over-sign a campus.”

The third step toward a successful signage program is knowing ADA regulations.

“If you start with knowledge of the ADA guidelines and using them as a template,” said Pearce, “you can design a comprehensive system. You’re using the ADA as a baseline, not an add-on feature, so it is built into the sign system, and you won’t have to retrofit later. It fits with the other design components to create a cohesive system.”

Fourth, take the ADA guidelines and create something unique. This is a challenge, admitted Pearce, although it is made easier by, again, having a working knowledge of the ADA guidelines. “We try to create something unique for each client and not push a standard product,” he said. “The design is related to the specific context of the campus. We ask ourselves what we can change about the signage that makes it unique but still meets the ADA’s performance requirements.”

The fifth step toward an ADA-compliant signage system that is also attractive is to educate others about ADA requirements and associated costs along the way. “It is important that people understand what is involved, and there is a cost associated with it,” said Harwood, “because I think a lot of folks may not know about the requirements and might be surprised when the discussion turns to the cost of a compliant signage system.”

Finally, create a signage manual. This project may seem daunting, but it is easier than coming up with the money to implement the signage program! Harwood, who has been chipping away at North Carolina’s signage program for 10 years, relies on his manual. Plus, a manual informs future generations and is the go-to source when a discrepancy or question arises.

The Results
Following these six steps has two amazing benefits.

The first is serving people of all abilities. “Universal accessibility means making everything inclusive and recognizing that everyone has different needs as we get older,” said Harwood. For example, one person may be blind his entire life, and another may have difficulty seeing as he ages. Designing to ADA requirements at a minimum and going beyond to design for universal access ensures clear communication for people of all abilities at all times.

The second benefit is making visitors feel welcomed. “Visitors know where to go,” Harwood said succinctly. “If the signage is cluttered, it disappears into the landscape, and that isn’t helpful.”

Pearce agreed, noting that “welcoming” signage equals “safe” signage — visitors feel welcome and safe. “There’s nothing like a bad-looking signage system to make you question the institution,” he summed.

If you are of the impression that ADA-compliant signage is restricted in its design, that ADA-compliance results in signage that is unattractive and inconsistent, then it is time to re-evaluate your impression. In fact, the ADA is the starting point for creating a signage program that is streamlined, cohesive, and attractive. “The ADA component of signage should not jump out as an add-on for visitors who have low vision or are blind,” explains Pearce. “It should be used to inform the design and be integrated into the design so that it is contributing overall to the signage’s legibility and usefulness to the widest audience.”