Signage today is far better than it's been at any other point in history. A century ago, sign design wasn't a profession to
speak of; the signs that guided riders and pedestrians (there weren't many drivers yet) tended to be informal and ad hoc. As the
automobile took off, the world found it needed traffic engineers, and it was these men and women who were the first to think
seriously about sign systems. America put national standards for road signs in place in 1935.
The 1970s saw the first stirrings of revolution in the sign world. That's when the Society for Environmental Graphic Design
(SEGD) was founded, and it's when designers first began to seriously study how best to orient people and guide them through space.
The field earned a name "wayfinding." By the 1980s and '90s, wayfinding advocates were involved in more development projects, but
dispatches from the era have a slightly aggrieved air; designers of environmental graphics still often found themselves fighting
for a place at the table. During the last 10 years, however, wayfinding has come into its own.
Why has there been such growth in the field? One cause is the remarkable pace of economic development over the past half-century.
Developed countries have been building increasingly complicated spaces-shopping malls, multiplexes, convention centers,
multi-terminal airports-that require good navigation systems in order for people to use them. In addition, businesses and
municipalities alike have realized that well-oriented people are calmer, happier, and more likely to spend money (and plan return
visits) than people who are lost. Investing in a good wayfinding system has real financial rewards.
The 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act was the first piece of national legislation to mandate the accessibility of privately
managed public spaces like hotels and universities. And because the law deals with visual as well as physical impairment, its
accessibility guidelines require that standards of legibility be maintained in directional signs; they evolved to specify everything
from the size of fonts to the contrast between lettering and its background. This development turned out to be as useful for the
rest of us as it was for the legally blind.
Finally, there's the fact that we have all increasingly become connoisseurs of good design. Fifty years ago, design belonged to
designers. But the advent of the personal computer introduced us all to fonts, line spacing, and page layout, and machines from the
photocopier to the iPhone have left us familiar with icons both clear and confusing. Navigating the Web has made us smarter about
orienting ourselves in virtual space. As a result, when we see badly designed signs, we demand better.
Read more by: Julia Turner