There are moments in life that have the power to forever change your perspective on the world. This can be dramatic, like the moment when you first understand that your parents don’t know everything. It could be a smaller realization, like when someone struggling with obesity tells you that some people avoid going to garden parties because of their fear of white plastic lawn chairs. All these small and big eye openers have something in common: they usually don’t come along as the commonly understood „Aha!-experience“, rather as a dawning of an idea. They slowly and subtly change your perspective, and like falling dominos, open your eyes to things you never even considered.
Right now I am in the middle of one of these processes. For two months I have been working in my newly learned profession as an information designer. Most creatives see information design only as the creation of infographics, but this diminishes what we actually do.
„Information design makes complex information easier to understand and to use.“
One of the areas where good infodesign makes a huge difference but is rarely recognized is signage in public spaces. One example – and this was the topic of my bachelor thesis – is the public transport. Did you know that the Wiener Linien tactile wayfinding system is a model used throughout europe? Also the signage system of Wiener Linien is often used as a reference example for other european public transport signage solutions. You didn’t notice that there is a well thought out underlying system? Perfect. So most of the time you just arrive at your desired destination, without really noticing. But you should start noticing, because you will be surprised how consequently for example color is used. On your way to the right underground line, all information is in black type on white background; when you are in the area of one underground line, all information is white on the corresponding color of the U-line; and if you leave the underground area, all ways out are marked white type on black background. To guarantee that you know which station you are in there are location information signs, displaying the name of the current station. These are overhead on the platform and above the rails opposite the platform. At Wien Landstraße U3 there are twenty railside location information signs „Landstraße“ per platform. If you only count the railside location information signs, the U3 and U4 platforms combined have a total of eighty signs! This makes it hard to not know where you are. In conclusion: one can like or dislike Helvetica Neue, the font used on the signage, but fact is that this wayfinding system displays a high level of expertise in this field.
As mentioned, two months ago I started working in the field of signage. I collaborate with a company that develops the wayfinding system for Uni Wien, based on their corporate identity. So in case you get lost on your way to your lectures, submit your complaints to me …
So what is the procedure when developing such a wayfinding system? The first step is visiting the building. If you are lucky you get detailed plans of the area. I try to understand the building, and then I need to put on the users shoes: where do I need and expect what information? What is the best way to get this information? What do I keep an eye out for? What do I know before coming into this building? What do I expect to find? Lastly and importantly, what have i learned from prior experiences?
The end result of all this research and thinking are of course some signs. But working in the field of signage doesn’t only entail making signs. It means, above all, to define what, how, and where things should be displayed. It needs spatial sense. Detailed know-how on legibility of fonts and interpretation and usage of pictograms are a prerequisite. It requires knowledge about technical advantages and problems with different sign materials and types.
At the moment I am fascinated by glass manifestations, „Anlaufschutz“ in German. As mentioned before, as soon as you learn about the rules and standards for glass manifestations, you start seeing them everywhere. From now on, you will always know in any public area how high 90 cm from ground is – this is the height of the glass manifestations lower edge. The reason for this ÖNORM is accessibility. No matter which light shines through the glass, the markings should be easily discernible. To ensure this, the markings have to be in a very light (white) and a dark color. Doors have to be marked differently from the rest of the window – not only to make it effortless to find them with poor eyesight, but also because they can suddenly open up towards you.
Other measurements you will know from now on: if there is a continuous glass manifestation, it will end at 130 cm. If there is a bottom and a top line, the top line starts at 150 cm …
Part of my journey has been the discovery of these rules, that while invisible to most, nonetheless shape our surroundings. It sparks a curiosity to learn why things work or look a certain way and discover more of these hidden rules and systems that often impact our lives in very significant ways. It requires me to open my eyes and mind to things that would never impact me but might negatively affect others, for example the structural integrity of a white lawn chair.
What I like about my work is that so much of it is an effort to be inclusive and that these efforts are starting to shape our environment. The world should be accessible for all and I really enjoy creating something that is not only visually pleasant but also useful.
by Katrin Beste
Information Designer in Vienna and amazing Volunteer at TEDxDornbirn.