Is It Or Ain’t It A Sign?

There's More to Wayfinding Design than Signs

Published on Thursday 31 January 2019

In a recent meeting a sign manufacturer referred to a wall panelling project.  Commenting that although using their core fabrication capabilities, it wasn’t really a sign. It’s true it didn’t feature any text or graphics, the message was a little more subliminal. Relating to brand expression rather than direct information. It reminded me of sitting on a sign awards judging panel a few years ago, and several discussions about whether entries fitted the definition of a sign. At The Velvet Principle,  we take a liberal view about what constitutes a ‘sign’. For us it’s any intervention within a place that is designed to explicitly or tacitly, elicit a response. Whether it prompts an action, informs, entertains or even stimulates an emotional response. We argue that there is more to signs in wayfinding.


Within buildings, a panel featuring graphics that identifies a building, provides directions or interpretative information is the most obvious.  But equally lighting can be used to indicate a route; and colour, illustrations or materials to express the brand or character.

Look up sign in a dictionary and you’ll see a long list of meanings:

  • An omen or something signifying a divine or a portentous act. Think of the Old Testament Bible story of the dove delivering an olive branch to Noah to signify the end of the flood.
  • Gestures and symbols that convey meaning e.g.  mathematical symbols, the Highway Code, hand signals used to direct traffic (or show appreciation or displeasure). 
  • Indications through which inferences can be drawn – if the lights aren’t on – no one’s home.

As these show, as well as a piece of graphic communication, signs can also be learned or culturally rooted practices and symbols that have been given meaning.

Benefits of Taking a Broader View

We believe that there’s a significant opportunity to increase the legibility of a place, through exploiting a wider a definition of the word ‘sign’. Using a mix of tools, will reduce clutter and increase the visibility of any graphic information that is put in place. Not only that, a multi-layered approach will provide a more interesting and intuitive environment that enriches the overall experience.

Interested in reading more about wayfinding as a strategic and design discipline?

Wayfinding jargon buster

Icons, Pictograms & Symbols

Wayfinding, Sign Design & Signage

Other Resources:

The Sign Design Society – UK based member organisation for practitioners involved in wayfinding and sign implementation

SEGD – US based members organisation

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Ceiling and wall graphics in the post room at 20 Fenchurch St
Graphics applied to the walls and ceiling enliven and provide an attractive place to work.
grahic showing a dove holding an olive branch
Image Courtesy