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Sign Language

TODAY'S SHOPPING CENTERS are doing much more than hanging out a shingle with the name of the mall. Signage has become an integral part of property identity and decor. “The old way of looking at signage was getting a sign out there that attracts attention with OK-looking elements to it,” says Duncan Williams, manager of Seattle-based I-5 Design & Manufacture. Increasingly, however, integrated environmental graphic design packages are being used to enhance visual impact.

Environmental graphic design encompasses everything from individual tenant signs to mall directories. “What we're doing is looking at it as a whole project, and adding things that don't necessarily include only signage,” Williams says. For example, a cornice molding may be designed with unique lighting or color that ties into the design of the pylon and directional signage. Customers are constantly seeking something new that “stirs their visual palate,” Williams notes. “The bottom-line goal is to create something visually stimulating and exciting.”


Environmental graphic design concepts are changing in new and exciting ways, in part because of the movement among developers to create so-called “destination” centers. “Every project is becoming more unique based on where it is located,” says Michael Burch, general manager of Scott AG in Santa Rosa, Calif. “So the signage that you do has to become part of that experience.”

Bay Street in Emeryville, Calif., for example, is a mixed-use project that encompasses 400,000 sq. ft. of retail space, a 16-screen theater, 250 residential units and a proposed hotel. The lifestyle center, which is currently under construction, features a traditional Main Street terminating in a plaza. The challenge for Scott AG was to create aesthetic signage with strong brand identity that complements the architecture, Burch notes.

Bay Street follows an industrial theme. It is designed to look like a grouping of industrial buildings that have been converted into retail shops. The signage program accommodates that theme by using industrial materials such as natural metals and exposed screws and rivets. Scott AG also used the side of the theater to create what appears to be an old, faded sign painted on the building exterior.

Environmental graphics complement such developments in important ways. “Signage in these projects is more subtle. It is more an art element or museum piece,” notes Sam Fidler, a senior project manager at Sussman/Prejza & Co. Inc., in Culver City, Calif.

Despite the subtlety, signage is nonetheless considered an integral part of the overall architectural approach. “Our clients are looking at areas such as Soho as an inspiration,” Fidler notes, citing the New York neighborhood as a place where understated environmental graphics successfully translate the retail experience.

Another example is Belmar retail center in Lakewood, Colo., which razed most of a 1960s shopping center to create a retail village that will be the heart of downtown. Belmar is creating new buildings that are designed to look old. In addition, buildings are being designed with varied facades to make them appear as though they are multiple buildings. One way to achieve that look is with store signage that features awnings and canopies.


Colored light adds an interesting twist to traditional designs. Lighting can produce any layer of emotion from warm and intimate to cold and stark, says Kim Silvia Hall, an associate and senior interior designer at New York-based Rockwell Architecture. Rockwell introduced creative lighting to its design of Philadelphia's Pod restaurant, which features white space that relies on light to create design elements.

“The fundamental concept was how we could paint with light,” Hall says. Light is used to create different areas within the restaurant. For example, projection lighting from above creates a series of colorful bulls-eye images on the floor. This helps to establish a circulation path.

The Pod, which opened in October 2000, is located near the University of Pennsylvania campus. Because this is not in a typical destination area, the restaurant needed to rely on its reputation to draw customers. The proximity to the college campus — coupled with the fact that American Bandstand started in Philadelphia — helped designers develop a decor that blends a '60s attitude with the concept of future and technology, Hall notes.

“This project is so much about looking at light and noticing light in an obvious way,” Hall says. The separate pod-shaped dining rooms have wall controls that can change the lighting to a variety of different colors including orange, blue and green.

Designers also are introducing light immersion in conjunction with way-finding signage to help people remember where they came from or where they're going. Culver City, Calif.-based Sussman/Prejza & Co. Inc. is using light immersion in the 1 million-sq.-ft. expansion of Fashion Show in Las Vegas. The expansion, which will open at the end of 2002, will double the size of the center.

The four portals linking Fashion Show to its parking garage will feature colored light immersion. The corridors leading to the parking area are color coded, and the light immersion in those corridors helps customers to remember where they parked. For example, the red court bathes customers in red light as they get onto the escalator, Fidler says. Sussman/Prejza also plans to go a step further by adding sound effects, such as the sound of running water in the blue court. “You want to try to fill the senses in all directions,” he says.


New technologies are giving signage a contemporary edge. “Some clients know that it is trendy, but they are willing to be adventuresome,” Fidler says. The expanded Fashion Show will use flat plasma screens for its retail directories. The project will incorporate the largest screens on the market — 61 inches — to use as retail directories. The programmable screens also will be used for advertising or interactive displays such as live simulcast fashion shows.

In addition, Fashion Show is creating a new plaza that borders Las Vegas Boulevard. The plaza will feature about 100 feet of LED screens that will front Las Vegas Boulevard. The Vegas Strip is a highly competitive arena, and the interactive screens will help to attract attention and draw customers in to the center, Fidler says.

“I think the trend is innovation,” Williams says. For example, I-5 Design is seeing more interest in concepts such as large mural scenes that draw attention to storefronts. Improvements in the quality of mural applications have sparked added interest in the technique. In the past, exterior graphics had a two- to three-year warranty. The latest state-of-the-art equipment has improved both colorfast and adhesion. As a result, warranties are now five to eight years, Williams notes.

One of the biggest challenges for environmental graphic designers is to get shopping center developers to start thinking about signage earlier in the planning process. New ways of using lighting, color or design can create a signage package with a more powerful punch. “The challenge is always knowing that those resources are available when you are putting a center together,” Williams says.

Beth Mattson-Teig is a Minneapolis-based writer.

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