Signage: Getting It Right the First Time

Cleveland High School (CHS) in Rio Rancho, N.M., opened in the fall of 2009 — accommodating 2,350 students in grades nine through 12, with 410,848 gross square feet, and at a construction cost of $120,073,346. Oh, it also includes 675 room signs, approximately 25 vinyl messages on doors and in other spots, and six exterior and 40 interior wayfinding signs. Honest. Just ask Jeff Rutherford, a graphic designer at Century Sign Builders in Albuquerque, who worked on the project.

“We are still getting ready to install two campus maps,” Rutherford says, indicating his work isn’t quite finished.

Every building that’s built contains signage. In fact, you cannot get a certificate of occupation or partial completion until you have safety signage in place, notes Jessica Veit, NCIDQ, an interior designer with Van H. Gilbert Architect PC, Albuquerque, who was a co-designer on the project, along with Fanning Howey Architects Inc., Celina, Ohio. And there are many types of signs — CHS includes exiting, wayfinding, classroom tactile, site and building, and safety signage, plus a dedication plaque.

And, while signage in the new school looks smartly professional, it should — and it was no easy feat to accomplish that goal. Veit and Nathan Geoffrion, a construction specialist with Van H. Gilbert, worked with Rutherford to plan the signage program.

Because of budget constraints — the signage cost $130,748 — initial signage was limited to code compliance. “The remaining budget was allocated as needed afterward,” says Geoffrion. “Yet, both the size and complexity of this project made signage extremely important so that the staff, students and community are able to navigate both the site and the facility.”

Another major challenge was determining the optimal placement for exit and wayfinding signage in Building A, which houses most of the classrooms. This wayfinding challenge was resolved two ways. The first was by physically touring the site. “We walked the buildings and looked for places to mount signage,” says Veit, “especially based on where our eyes were drawn. For example, as we were walking one hallway, my eye was drawn to the top of the hallway, so I noted that we should put a sign there. There really was no way to do it without walking the site; the buildings are just too massive.”

The second way this challenge was conquered was by comparing and contrasting signage options and placement. “In fact, wayfinding signage was developed using color-coded master maps and corresponding building signage,” recalls Geoffrion.

Specifically, each building on campus and also each portion of Building A (there are six) was assigned a color. “Each color was carried throughout all the wayfinding and room signs,” says Rutherford. “In addition, we added a color bar for each building just under the exterior lettering to that building or, in the case of Building A, that portion of the building.”

Veit recalls that it was challenging to find enough colors to use, again, simply because there are so many buildings. “And it was difficult to find colors that made sense,” she says. “For example, we didn’t want to use hot pink in the administration building. Because it’s a professional building, we chose black. We chose an off-red color for the auditorium signage because that’s the color of the seats. One of the school’s colors is electric blue, so we used electric blue signage in the gymnasium.”

Going a step further to achieve that professional look, Veit opted to put contrasting colors next to each other. “This makes the signs easier to see,” she observes, “especially on wayfinding signage that tells people where to go and how to get there. The colors definitely helped with that.”

After Century Sign Builders completed the installation, the team walked the site to look for errors and omissions. Geoffrion checked the punch list. Veit checked the color, placement, message and lettering/numbering of each sign.

Did they find anything amiss? “No, we sure didn’t find anything to change,” Veit says with a smile in her voice. “That’s because we put a lot of work into it on the front end. We checked our work, Jeff at Century checked his work and we checked everything together before the signs were fabricated.”

The team, working diligently on the front end, overcame two challenges. The end result was well worth the effort — CHS has the professional look it deserves, visitors easily navigate their way around the campus and in the facilities, and all building users can find their way out in case of an emergency.

Veit encourages other teams to pay such attention to signage. “Go in depth with it, considering color, size and placement,” she says, “to create a consistent look and easy navigation.”