The Velvet Principle

Is it or Ain't it a Sign?

Exploring the Nature of Signs in Wayfinding and Environmental Graphics

Published on Thursday 31 January 2019

In a recent meeting a sign manufacturer referred to a wall panelling project, remarking that although using their core fabrication capabilities, it wasn’t really a sign. It’s true to say it didn’t feature any text or graphics. The message was a little more subliminal - related to brand expression rather than the direct communication of information. The incident reminded me of a sign awards panel a few years ago and the several discussions about whether particular entries fitted the definition of a sign.


At The Velvet Principle, perhaps we take a liberal view about what constitutes a ‘sign’. For us it’s an intervention that explicitly or tacitly conveys information designed to prompt action, inform, entertain or even elicit an emotional response. Within the built environment, a panel featuring text and graphics that identifies a building, provides directions or interpretative information is the most obvious; but equally lighting can be used to indicate a route; colour, illustrations or materials to express the character of a place.

Look up sign in a dictionary and you’ll see a long list of meanings beyond graphics applied to walls and boards:

  • 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 signifying the end of the flood (and consequent use of the olive branch as a symbol for peace);
  • Gestures and symbols that convey meaning – from mathematical symbols and the Highway Code, to the hand signals used to direct traffic (or show one’s appreciation or displeasure of another);
  • Indications through which inferences can be drawn – if the lights aren’t on - it’s likely there’s no one at home; wearing black for mourning.

As this extract shows, as well as a piece of physical communication expressed graphically to inform, assist and warn, signs can also be learned and culturally derived indicators and symbols that have been ascribed or given meaning. 

Benefits of Taking a Broader View

There’s potentially much to be achieved by exploiting a wider a definition of the word 'sign' to increase the legibility of a place. Using a mix of tools, to deliver the communication objectives will help reduce the risk of clutter and in doing so increase the visibility of any graphic information that is put in place. Not only that, a multi-layered approach may also help 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 - That's Just Signs Isn't It?

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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Graphics applied to the walls and ceiling enliven and provide an attractive place to work.Image Courtesy