Behind the University's signs of the times: the art in navigation – The Michigan Daily

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Mason Hall had a wayfinding problem.
“At best, it was confusing,” the University of Michigan’s Lynne Friman, LSA’s Capital Project Manager and Designer, admits. Her recent credits at the University include redesigns at the Science Learning Center and the Modern Languages Building. She also has been involved in creating the interior of the Museum of Natural History.
Now, Friman is one of the people tasked with the ongoing wayfinding project within the corridors Angell, Haven, Mason and Tisch halls. Though she is often the point-person within LSA for all aspects of a space’s interior — advising on furniture, art, paint and other cosmetic treatments at the SLC — she was recruited for this particular project due to her graphic communications expertise, having solved similar problems at nearby cultural institutions, such as the Henry Ford Museum and the Detroit Institute of Arts.
“Ginny was putting papers up around (Mason Hall), trying to get people to find their way (around the building), and then she came to me,” Friman said.
‘Ginny’ is Virginia Schlaff, the University’s Facilities Manager for the Mason-Angell-Tisch-Haven (MATH) complex, as well as nearby Tappan Hall. The papers, posted to the sides of the hallways using blue painters tape, were an ad-hoc solution designed to temporarily take the guesswork out of the complex’s enigmatic hallways. The common misconception of the building being composed of only one hall is falsely supported by the blurred boundaries and shared roofs between each. 
“When the students didn’t come for two years in a row into the classrooms, you had two years worth of students out of four that were unfamiliar (with the building’s layout),” Schlaff said of the online-only period at the University. The complex’s small, maroon interior navigation signs blended in with everything else on the walls of Mason Hall, positioned in hard-to-see places and overshadowed by the saturation of flyers for student organizations and. 
“A lot more students needed help finding their way,” Schlaff affirmed.
Like many aspects of college life, the pandemic altered and invited change to many different systems on campus, signage included. When students finally returned to campus, the if-you-know-you-know mentality of navigating the MATH complex was no longer adequate in supporting the needs of the student community. 
Schlaff and Friman are among those in the University’s Facilities offices — plus those in Architecture, Engineering and Construction — working on Phase 2 of this particular wayfinding project, which includes directional and landmark signs for the rest of the ground and first floors, with an anticipated completion date of Fall 2023. Future phases of the project will assist in navigation on the complex’s upper floors, where finding the right building and corridor for a particular room is about as easy as solving a “Where’s Waldo.”
The ongoing wayfinding work at the MATH complex is only a small window into the bureaucratic world of signage at the University of Michigan, where branding, accessibility and graphic design coalesce into a service we take for granted every day. From “you are here” maps to window lettering, these textual and visual indicators can change whether or not someone gets lost on their way to class, to being able to find the emergency room at the University Hospital. Of course, signage is not always life or death, but it does quietly influence our everyday lives, making it easy or difficult to get where we want to go. Multiply individual decisions by over 50,000 students, plus employees, it’s important that each person knows where to go.
Through the power of suggestion and direction, this overlooked medium can communicate  — or fail to communicate — what is deemed important about a place. But who decides on these signs of the times?
***
Even before entering any U-M building, you are guided by a series of signs noting that you’re on campus. Perhaps you followed one of the City of Ann Arbor’s charming visuals after exiting the highway, pointing you toward Downtown. Upon reaching State and East Huron Streets, you’re greeted by a large, blue sign embedded in a landscaped wall, indicating that you’re on Central Campus. While looking for parking, you might avoid University signs that indicate different permit colors and hours of enforcement, instead opting for metered spaces open to the public. To find the location of your intended building, a freestanding identification sign on a concrete base will help confirm you’re almost there. Finally, at its front doors, lettering on the windows and doors inform you that you’ve finally made it.
Were the above scenario to not go as planned, however, you might arrive in a distant part of campus, wander around before choosing to enter the wrong building, where you might bang on locked doors, frustrated by how historic and convoluted the University is. Once you’ve exhausted many entrances, you’ll ask a random passerby to show you the way, and embarrassingly, you find out you’re a far walk from where you intended to go. Signs could have saved you the confusion, anger and embarrassment of just walking to your desired room.
Layers of communication are essential to navigate a sprawling institution like the University of Michigan, where many jurisdictions govern piecemeal areas of campus. This multifaceted approach to wayfinding is no accident, however, and it’s all codified in the Campus Signage and Wayfinding Guidelines, published by the University Planner’s Office. The 29-page document dictates best practices for everything from indicating accessible entrances, using the Block M appropriately on Athletic Facilities, the maximum duration banners can be displayed on University light poles before being taken down (one academic year) and the suggested depth of topsoil surrounding a sign’s concrete base (four to six inches). 
The exceptional precision that exterior signage must conform to seeks to bridge the identity gap between the University’s 19 schools and colleges, plus many other non-academic departments like University Unions or Michigan Housing. When simply walking through the Diag, there is little from the outside world to suggest the presence of these different governing bodies. Rather, it seems like there is only one: the University of Michigan.
Once inside a building, though, the uniformity stops. On page 12 of the document, pertaining to building directories, individual University units are “encouraged to place directories at all entrances of a building.” And so emerges the complex, somewhat-disheveled patchwork of wayfinding that seeks to get U-M affiliates from front door to classroom door — a task that is easier said than done. 
Robert Ramsburgh knows this better than most. Before his current role at the Biological Sciences Building, he was Facilities Manager for the MLB, North Quad Residence Hall, Lane Hall and the Undergraduate Science Building. He has spent the past few years of his tenure trying to bring life to the MLB, which is often nominated as one of the ugliest buildings on the University’s campus. 
“At one point, there was a video circulating that a couple of students did about the ‘Majorly Lame Building,’” Ramsburgh said, who has been with U-M Facilities for five years. “I sort of took (the MLB) on as one of my pet projects because it had been neglected … If I were a parent of a student, and I came into a building like this, and it was as drab and dreary as it was, I’d be wondering exactly what I was paying for.”
Unkempt spaces, small signs and doors painted in seemingly random colors added confusion and chaos to a building already made difficult by its infinite oval shape and lack of corridor windows on most floors.
“I had been in this building long enough and had seen enough lost students. I thought, ‘we need as much clear direction as possible,” noted Ramsburgh.
Following the principles of Universal Design, a guide developed in 1977 for the purpose of creating equitable, flexible and intuitive environments, the renovations to the MLB included transparent images of surrounding buildings (like North Quad) on stairwell doors to convey what one would see if the building had been designed with windows, effecting a more open, welcoming space. Ramsburgh said these kinds of exterior landmarks can help with interior wayfinding.
“(We used) North Quad for (the orange) entrance, Rackham for the blue entrance, Hill Auditorium for the purple entrance and the bell tower for the green entrance.”
Friman assisted with signage for the MLB project as well, helping design large wall graphics, which collage the exterior landmarks with color-coordinated photos of nature. In addition, text was used to provide a third way to differentiate the various building entrances and stairwells.
“We worked on getting welcoming words that aligned with (the values of) LSA,” Friman said, of words like ‘create’, ‘inspire’ and ‘welcome’ floating in word clouds on the graphic. “We used anywhere from five to 10 different languages (on each sign).” 
At eye level, brighter wayfinding signs point students and staff the fastest way around to their auditorium or the restrooms. On each room number, the motif of the four different entrance colors (orange, blue, purple and green) is repeated on the bottom edge of each individual room sign. 
Ramsburgh has received largely positive feedback from users of the building with whom he’s interacted in the halls. However, there is always more work to be done. 
“I’m still trying to figure out how to get an understanding or a sign that signifies where the basement is … Kids have a hard time understanding that B stands for basement,” Ramsburgh says. “That’s been my driving focus and what I strive to, just try to make life a little bit easier for students and for faculty and staff.”
Behind the seemingly cold, calculated nature of wayfinding and other signage often lies empathy, and a desire to better the lives through ease of use and cheerful design. Mostly, this comes from institutions themselves as they strive toward a customer-service oriented best practice.
At times, however, the customer intervenes and enlists themselves in the practice of guerilla signage, do-it-yourself wayfinding without the approval from authorities. Even among effective signage systems that have cemented themselves as cultural icons, this subversion of governance proves an attractive prize for those willing to take on the mixed publicity and legal risks. 
Think of the “Hollyweed” incident in 2017, in which artist Zachary Fernandez used black and white tarps to alter California’s iconic Hollywood sign to read “Hollyweed.” He took inspiration from Danny Finegood, who has altered it three times since the 1970s to make political statements surrounding marijuana, the Iran-Contra Scandal and the Gulf War.
Even the New York City Subway System, whose wayfinding Friman took inspiration from when designing for the MATH complex, has been augmented with grassroots signage — but more for convenience than politics. In 2014, an initiative called the Efficient Passengers Project sought to take the guesswork out of subway commuting and identified the best train cars to get on for fast transfers with quasi-official stickers that mimicked the minimalist Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) signage.
And above ground, perhaps the most famous example of guerilla signage is artist Richard Ankrom’s high profile fix of an exit sign on one of Downtown Los Angeles’ infamous freeways, his purpose to warn drivers early of a commonly missed exit, and his craft good enough to convince California’s own transportation workers that it was official.
Given the personal automobile’s dominance as the primary mode of transport in Americans’ lives, it makes sense that much of our interaction with the bureaucracy of signage comes while driving down the freeway. Similar to the University’s sprawling campus of schools and colleges, the roads of the United States bridge boundaries between governments, in this case the governments of 50 different states. And also like the University, there’s a manual to rule them all. 
***
The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, or the MUTCD, dates back to 1935, when the American Association of State Highway Officials combined previous attempts to standardize shape and colors of highway signage across states as automobile travel was becoming increasingly common. Drive forward to the present day, where its humble beginnings have evolved into an 864-page document with sign illustrations and diagrams of intersections that place the signs in context. The table of contents is almost 30 of those pages, and the main text itself is quite intimidating, full of roadway jargon like “cantilevered signal structure,” “dynamic exit gate operating mode” and “vibrotactile pedestrian device.”
Despite its colossus, one could argue that the MUTCD is more accessible than ever given its web-searchability. And as of 2017, the Facebook group ‘there is NO way that is MUTCD-compliant’ has served as a virtual congregation of those processing, enforcing and observing this government document’s effect on everyday life. Currently 19,000 members strong, with six admins and over a dozen posts daily, the page breathes public life and awareness into a stuffy code written in bureaucratese.
Jeremy Zorek, a junior at Rutgers University, is one of the page’s moderators, having assumed the position about a year ago. A self-described “train enthusiast,” Zorek has remained a part of the page for its entertainment value and general intrigue.
“I think it’s a funny page, and I didn’t want to see it go away,” Zorek said. “So I figured, like, ‘hey, why not? I’ll help keep it going.’”
And going it has. The group’s discussion page primarily features mistakes or inconsistencies in roadway signage, from large scale redundancies (think two yield signs right next to each other) to minute, distracting details (the incorrect font on an interstate shield). Through the many eyes that process the MUTCD as a document, biases within the government document are uncovered, in turn inciting disagreement in the comments section. 
“There’ll be stuff about biking and, funnily enough, sometimes those (posts) are the most controversial,” Zorek recounts. “A lot of people that have the crossover with the NUMTOT will be saying pro-bike stuff and fighting with the … boomers in the group.” (NUMTOT being an abbreviation for a popular urbanism-focused Facebook group).
Quite common in the comments section is users citing the source material with scary accuracy, mentioning the government codes of the sign that would solve a particular roadway’s ambiguity problem or providing screenshots of visuals within the MUTCD document. Mile markers of similar examples are traded, and through this dialogue, a geographic expansiveness emerges on the screen, tracing signs down hundreds of miles of roads, tying together America from signpost to signpost.
Zorek’s own favorite sign is one a few states away from his residence in New Jersey. 
“There’s one from Massachusetts … the sign is labeled ‘thickly settled’, meaning a densely populated area,” Zorek explained. “You see them everywhere. I’ve been to Massachusetts, you see them all over the place and they’re really funny.”
Though the MUTCD is, at its core, federal guidelines imposed for the sake of clarity on the United States’ highways, the surface-level homogeneity it dictates highlights the quirkiness and humor to be found in locality and human error. It’s seen in the pride people have over their State Highway symbol, or the ongoing debate concerning the merits of two competing fonts: newcomer Clearview or stalwart Highway Gothic.
When the structures behind the signs are uncovered for public examination, bureaucratic processes can be picked apart, and those in the general public can begin to form opinions and attitudes about the signage worlds around them.
Back in Mason Hall, Friman and Schlaff’s teams are hard at work bringing the building’s wayfinding up to modern standards. As Friman points out, it’s a task easier said than done, especially on a college-wide level.
“These buildings were built from the 1920s to the 2020s, and there are so many differences, (architectural) changes, typography changes and everything else,” Friman said. “So if we can get our arms around this as fast as we can, we might have a chance of making it look more consistent.” 
Books can’t be judged by their covers, but signs can, and if the MUTCD Facebook group is any indicator, it shows that everyone can be a lover or a critic. However, these discussions demonstrate the warm humanity behind cold pieces of metal, and that signs for people are, in fact, created by people and can be bettered by people.
The work ahead to provide consistent wayfinding inside LSA’s 23 campus buildings is a daunting one. But luckily for Friman and Schlaff, practicing empathy and helping people navigate the complex world around them is always of the times.
Statement Correspondent Oscar Nollette-Patulski can be reached at [email protected]

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