Signage for Schools

"In the past, signs were often an afterthought to school design," says Teresa Cox, president of APCO Graphics, Inc., Atlanta, Ga. "Too often they still are."

In agreement is Robert Klinger, chairman of Signs Plus, New Ideas, New Technologies, Inc., in Sarasota, Fla. "In planning their designs, architects are not always friendly to signage," Klinger says. "The reason is they want their building to look attractive, and are afraid that signage will be a distraction. So, they may have a very nice aluminum sign on the side of the building to identify the school and maybe something impressive in the gym, but the many other functions of signage are neglected." The result, Klinger suggests, is that signs are then often put up in an uncoordinated and ad hoc manner, which, ironically, results in a sense of clutter that does detract from the aesthetics of the building.

School signage, says Kelly David, director of marketing, for ASI/Signage Innovation, in Dallas, says. "Signage should be integrated into the planning and design process, and should encompass brand reinforcement, wayfinding and regulatory, as well as specialty, signs."

To start from the outside, Klinger makes what should be the obvious point  — it's not enough to have a single sign identifying the school on simply the one side, which allows for the most attractive presentation. Rather, a clear identity sign, whether on the side of the building or a monument sign on the ground, should be on each side of the school that has a wall perpendicular to a road.

Perhaps the next most important visual element is the informational sign off of the most trafficed road passing the school. This, says Cox, could be an old-fashioned changeable letter board, which can still function well, especially for schools with small budgets. For those that can afford it, there are the more versatile electronic signs. Both of these can announce upcoming events ranging from athletic games to PTA and booster club meetings, auctions, fundraisers and the like.

The newer electronic signs, with the rapidly changing LED lighting, called electronic message centers (EMCs) can do quite a bit more. Klinger points out that LED lighting is very effective compared to old-fashioned fluorescent lights, with the LED light lasting 100,000 hours. Moreover, whereas the traditional sign requires a manual changing of a limited number of letters, the EMC can be changed easily at a computer and can be programmed up to a year in advance. Messages can easily be expanded to allow the schools to get a point across about almost anything, from bond issues to levees to community events to exceptional student performance and teacher of the year recognitions, which can be communicated on EMCs throughout the district.

"EMCs can communicate thousands of impressions a day to those driving by," Klinger says. He adds that EMCs have proved very effective in finding abducted children through the "Amber Alert", which goes to a national database of EMCs but, most especially, to the retail stores and other establishments in the community.

One caution about EMCs, however, is that because they have been sometimes improperly used on highways, creating accident hazards. There are a host of regulations that have been enacted concerning them. These vary from state to state and city to city. There are many differing rules dictating the height of the lettering, the rate of their duration or change, and so on.

Also, because their unnecessary glaring brightness at night has offended many citizens and regulators, some jurisdictions do not allow them, at least in residential areas. Those that are should be dimmed at least 10 to 15 percent at night, which any reputable U.S. vendor will allow to be easily done. But, for issues like these, and general maintenance issues, think twice before buying a low cost EMC .

Moving closer to the entrances, you have, Cox says, "accessibility codes, which have become stricter. Just as you need ramps and other paths to travel for the disabled, you also need the appropriate ADA signs, such as those for the visually impaired. This is signage with a liability consideration."

Perhaps the most important signage greeting the person entering the school is the directory, wayfinding information in terms of teachers and classrooms where parents want to drop off their children, directions to the administration office, gym, etc. for members of the community. These also serve to list current events, such as parent/teachers meetings, performances and so on, with a map and directions to the appropriate locations.

Cox mentions that some schools had gone to having a TV on a stand showing these directions but now many have upgraded to digital technology with a large monolith illuminated with LED letters. This information is easy to program and change.

Klinger suggests that on the backing of these changing signs, at the entrance and also in some areas, such as the cafeteria, with its changing menus, that there be a permanent identifier on top, in vinyl or other material, with the school slogan and/or mascot and/or school colors, "much like a letterhead, with the changing copy to go below."

Not all of the signs subject to change need to be high-tech. For instance, says Cox, "We're seeing many schools select products that will allow them to insert updateable inserts next to the classrooms, a place where a single piece of paper will identify the teacher's name, grade and class designation."

ADA regulations, that start outside the building, continue inside as well. Moreover, as Cox points out, these tend to change from state to state, and sometimes from jurisdiction to jurisdiction within a certain state. Tactile or braille signs are required for the visually impaired. Size may be a requirement, especially for those signs pointing to an emergency exit. Height can also be a requirement, in regard to wheelchair students and, sometimes, their size. Cox says some states have height requirements directed toward children and adults, and some require two signs to communicate to both. In other words, it's important to make sure all of your signage is in compliance before it is ordered and installed.

Directional signs will be needed to guide the disabled to various locations, such as restrooms, with further appropriate signage within. Direction signs may be in the form of arrows along the walls or at the base of the floors, with a smaller name of the destination in conjunction with the arrow if the trek is a little complicated.

"You also have to think about the audience," David says, "and choose your sign strategies accordingly." For instance, she explains, different types of signage are needed for high and low traffic areas, or toward members of the community who are likely to be looking for certain key locations, as opposed to hallways frequented primarily by students.

The color of the signage is also important, says Cox. "If, for instance, the interior is primarily natural wood, the sign colors should be natural in tone and coordinate in an overall balanced and pleasing aesthetic effect." Cox adds that sometimes there will be an emphasis on overall color composition or the school colors, or both. The point is simply to harmonize the overall scheme. "This came as a surprise to me when I first heard it, but some schools have told us they wanted to stay away from the gang colors in the neighborhood," says Cox. "It hadn't occurred to me before why this might be an important consideration." Durability and signs made of environmentally friendly materials are also important factors, Cox adds.

"Brand is extremely important," says David. "You can have a nice balance of floor decals all of the way to large overhead signage, especially in the auditorium."

But what should proceed everything else, including how you integrate signage into the budget process, is the budget, David says. A smaller budget obviously means less elaborate signage, and paring down to the basics. The overall design coordination is easier in new schools than renovations, especially of older schools, but the same basic planning process should ensue.

Choosing signs that are protected against vandalism and are easy to clean is also important, David continues. "Make sure the signs are ordered in time so they will be installed prior to opening," David recommends. "If it's a three week process, don't wait until the last minute."

"Installation is very important," says Cox. "Signs should be put up correctly in a professional manner. Nothing can more detract from a beautiful sign than poor installation. If it's not done right, or is in violation of the codes, it will be necessary to remove the signs, repair the walls and do the installation again."

Cox concludes by saying that when your signs are installed by a sign vendor or a general contractor, make sure that your contract guarantees proper installation.