Colour with purpose
Colour holds a lot of power; to stimulate mood and emotion. It also has huge potential to increase visibility. We’re going to need something here that doesn’t blend in, that doesn’t get lost in the plethora of other signs fighting for our attention. We are going to need to think about this and how we achieve contrast in a multi-coloured world. Is it even possible? I would argue, yes.
Let me take you on a trip down memory lane, to different times, way back in 2012. A different year in which we, in most part, beamed with pride for we were Olympic hosts. I was privileged enough to live in London while this great showpiece took place, lucky enough to work in Greenwich which saw a large number of equestrian events take place, and even lucky enough to work on some official Olympic comms. When we think back to anything relating to the Olympics we probably think of the 2012 logo, you know the one where Lisa Simpson is… nevermind. Love it or hate it, in terms of satisfying a communication brief the piece of work as a whole was fantastic. Let me explain why.
The world descended on London with its winding streets and network of transport systems that have a serious disparity between available space and the number of people using it (ahhh, better times when you would happily be wedged in the crux of a strangers armpit for your entire journey). In order to prevent chaos, most of London’s transport network relies on the efficient movement of huge numbers of people. Anyone who has visited our capital has seen how quickly a platform fills to capacity when a train is delayed. Or, the effects on the escalator when someone doesn’t stand on the right. What the clever souls at Wolff Olins recognised is people who weren’t from the area needed a very quick reference tool to indicate where they should go. Cue magenta.
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It’s worth saying I regularly get the piss taken out of me because I’m partial to a bit of magenta. Bias aside, what Wolff Olins had recognised is there was little else out there using magenta on that kind of scale. Probably because it’s pretty full on. But it worked. It turned what could have been one of the most complicated wayfinding systems in an overcrowded environment into one of the simplest I have ever used. It was a stroke of genius. It was so good, it didn’t even matter that the Olympic typeface was not that accessible – words were there for confirmation. It held the detail, but it was colour that solved the most challenging part of the brief.
With a little bit of research, we could achieve the same for a national signage system.
Accessible, clear, recognisable typography
The ability to not only display characters and numbers into coherent formations, but to create personality through typography is often overlooked. While this is not the time for an abstract typographic experiment, it probably should be an exercise in legibility. That doesn’t just mean, is that a lower case ‘l’ (L) or an upper case ‘I’ (i) – you see? It means how do we make these formations understandable to different abilities and nationalities?
Over the years I have advocated the use of a typeface called FS Me (by Fontsmith) whenever I’ve had a project with accessibility as its driving force. Here are a few words from the Fontsmith website that explain why:
“When most of us go about everyday tasks, we take for granted the reading that’s involved, on instructions, labels and so on. For people with learning disabilities, reading is made much harder by certain fonts. FS Me is designed specifically to improve legibility for people with learning disabilities.
The font was researched and developed with – and endorsed by – Mencap, the UK’s leading charity and voice for those with learning disabilities. Mencap receives a donation for each font license purchased.
Every letter of FS Me was tested for its appeal and readability with a range of learning disability groups across the UK.”
A specific font can also be as recognisable as a colour, giving instant brand recognition, even if in this case that brand recognition is public safety notices. There may be scenarios where we can’t use colour, so we need all of our assets to work and be recognisable in isolation as well as together. Could we develop our own national warning system typeface that takes accessibility into account, while satisfying all these other challenges?
Imagery and iconography that has meaning
A picture paints a thousand words. Not only that, it transcends language. “‘Emoji’ the fastest growing language with 80% of Brits now using symbols to communicate” was a leading headline from The Drum, way back in 2015. We’re five years on now and emojis dominate the landscape of most of my messenger apps. Why? Because they are able to add subtlety to words, to convey sentiment. I’m able to convey sarcasm. I can demonstrate the level of hilarity I attribute to ‘that meme’, by deciding on the angle of the laughing/crying emoji face. Tone, as we discussed earlier, is important and so is context. Symbols and icons can often work at greater speed to give the desired outcome than words and have the added advantage of being less language dependent. It’s not perfect and can be ambiguous – is anyone actually using the aubergine emoji to talk about aubergines? – but with the right level of thought and combined with stripped back typography, this could be an effective solution.
A suite of icons that can be a more effective method than words should most definitely be at the heart of the repository. Arrows, masked zone, keep your distance and so on. Words should be there in a supportive role, to deliver complex messages or remove any ambiguity.
Instructions in an informative, unbiased, unpatronising tone.
Let’s be honest, most of us don’t like to feel like we are being told how to behave. It’s even worse for some reason when we feel it’s an official government voice. Maybe it’s the anarchist inside. We can get into the psychology of that (and if this train of thought was ever adopted as a government project, I would strongly suggest they get into the psychology of it) but let’s just assume for now that a little bit of common sense would go a long way. Content must remain informative, unbiased, with any ambiguity removed. It can not take a patronising tone. It needs to be easily understood in terms of its instruction, but not shouty, officious or patronising. It can’t be so soft it is deemed to be optional (if it isn’t). And, it needs to transcend generations, disabilities and language barriers. Basically, it’s a really tough brief but there are some fantastic strategists and copywriters out there that would relish that challenge.
If we expect the public to engage in consistent behaviours then when we set the tone, once again, consistent application will be key. There are many signs we experience in our day to day lives that want to achieve the same outcome, yet are very different in their approach, often with very amusing results.
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