Vital signs

Rebecca Paddick looks at how the latest developments in educational signage are providing communication platforms across the sector

Educational buildings are used by a range of demographic groups, from small children to mature students, with a variety of needs and requirements.

A good signage strategy is the starting point to make sure that all staff, students and visitors can move around the school or campus in an efficient, clear and secure way.

“Educational wayfinding signage needs to be clear, concise, accurate, durable and stylish,” said Lindsay Burnham, marketing manager for Astley, an established sign provider in the education sector.

She continued: “Not only does the information need to be correct and visible, it also has to meet all health and safety regulations to maintain the wellbeing of the individuals.”

Signage can also play a part in a student’s academic achievements, as Burnham explained: “Attending a new a school or university is daunting for any student and being able to work their way round the campus, to be in the right place at the right time, is a key factor as to whether they feel settled in their new place of study and ultimately that they perform well and are successful.”

All in the planning

Sign providers recommend a carefully planned signage strategy from the early stages of a new build project, so costs can be factored into a budget. “Otherwise, clients have to choose a lower value signage package which may not reflect the quality of the rest of the build,” said Burnham.

“We like to be involved in the project at the early stages to advise on where signage will be required so that appropriate electrical supply or ground works can be factored into the build. It is also important internally in the case of digital signage which will need a power source as well as Wi-Fi access.”

Stocksigns work with architects and principle contractors from the early design stages to try and avoid later costly mistakes. “Including signage in the beginning of a project enables you to create a signage scheme that works hard for the investment, developing signage that fulfils a number of functions, brand building, information, continuity, safety and wayfinding all while displaying a sympathetic design to complement a premises’ overall ambience,” commented the company’s marketing manager Joanna Godden.

“In addition, the more time and consideration given to the signage element of a project, the more cost effective solution is likely to be established,” she added.

Godden also stressed that as the number of international students attending UK schools and universities rises, accurate, clear and engaging signage is even more important. “Good, clear signage should be instantly recognised, regardless of nationality, age or indeed ability. Audiences should always be carefully considered and included in your brief with your signage contractor.”

Equally, if a building is littered with signs, this can often be counter intuitive. Poorly conceived wayfinding actually hinders and confuses, while on an aesthetic level it’s important for the design to complement the architecture.

Philip Ball, managing director of Cobal Signs, said: “Wayfinding should be based on principles of mental mapping, gradual disclosure of information at the right time and place and graphic language.”

Cobal Signs recently worked with a school in Brent, which is fully embracing the concept of wayfinding, allowing pupils with complex needs to not only find their way around a new, purpose-built £29 million school more easily, but also providing them with a greater sense of identity and belonging.

The Village School has over 240 pupils aged two to 19 and accommodates children with a wide range of complex needs, including physical, medical and sensory impairment. With more than 200 staff, including teachers, personal care staff and therapists, wayfinding plays a key role in ensuring everyone is able to find their way around the school quickly, easily and safely.

Headteacher Kay Johnson explained: “From the moment you arrive at the school it’s clear from the large exterior signage depicting the faces of some of our pupils that we are all about inclusion and ownership. For our pupils it’s important for them to feel a sense of belonging and being part of something much bigger. This has a profound effect on our pupils as, without doubt, it leads to increased levels of confidence and creates the right environment that is conducive to learning and generating happiness and positivity within the school.

“The signage clearly has a very practical and functional purpose and it does this in conjunction with sensory objects and audible sound cues located throughout the school. Many of our pupils communicate using symbols so the bright wall art is extremely helpful.”

Cobal Signs worked closely with design agency Taxi Studio to continue the school’s positive brand identity through the use of artistic wall art and a wayfinding scheme. The graphics for the internal signs featured rebus icons, a set of symbols widely used in SEN (special educational needs) environments, and a system already adopted by the school.

The internal signage adopted a dark grey and off-white colour scheme, achieving a good contrast without the glare created with black and white. A restricted palette of colours maintained simplicity and coherence throughout the building while complementing the range of wall colours in the school.

Cobal’s Philip Ball added: “Consideration also had to be given to the visibility of the signage, particularly for those pupils in wheelchairs. The signage was deliberately designed in such a way so that it wouldn’t jar with the rest of the school environment. Certain colour combinations and compositions were avoided as these can sometimes trigger adverse reactions from pupils.”

The digital age

Education is all about communication and so it is no wonder that dynamic digital signage, in many ways the communication channel of the current age, is fast gaining ground in universities, colleges and other higher educational establishments around the world.

Astley are currently looking at bringing digital signage together with traditional methods. “Signage is no longer just about what you physically see on the wall or around the site, it is part of the whole communication platform which includes interactive directional signage, internal room signage which can be linked to diaries and timetables and informational screens which can display visitor or event details,” said marketing manager Lindsay Burnham. “We see this area developing most in the near future as educational institutions have to convey a lot of information to many different audiences.”

A dynamic digital signage network installed across multiple sites is able to provide cross campus communication to students, delivering information that has impact and can be targeted in terms of content, location and scheduling.

“With large numbers of people moving between numerous buildings on multiple sites, digital signage offers the ability to broadcast relevant, real-time messages and information in a high impact and attractive way,” said Natalie Winterborn, marketing director at Castleton Signs.

Castleton has developed wayfinding strategies and sign schemes for the education market for more than 60 years, from universities and colleges to academies, secondary and primary schools.

“Signage needs to do more than simply guide people around buildings. It needs to emphasise ‘brand’, be aesthetically pleasing as well as fit for purpose and be able to withstand the often rigorous environment,” said Winterborn.

“Cost comparisons with other media, especially the use of posters, make dynamic digital signage an attractive solution by reducing and removing print costs, the costs associated with distribution of materials across the campus and disposal costs.”


Something for everyone

The differences in signage really depend on the size, scale and needs of the organisation. Each signage project brings it own specific issues, such as a vast university campus spread over many acres, a special needs school where the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) is highly relevant, or a primary school where symbols and colours may play an important role.

Beyond the basics of wayfinding, health and safety, the right signage can help build identity, boost learning and develop a sense of belonging.