Designing for Direction

A few months back, we were trying to find our way to a forest reserve on the outskirts of Auroville. At one point, we were surrounded by red mud lands and unpaved roads, tracks on the dirt alone leading the way. In desperation, I called the Program Director, a young man called Harsh, who asked me, “Have you hit the two bumps yet? When you reach the lily pond, take the road curving to your right. Then, you should hit the bumps and we are soon after that!” It was an odd way to find a place, but eventually following our noses, we found a muddy lily pond and we hit the bumps. Right after than, a nondescript sign reads “Sadhana Forest.

 In India, typically, besides the road maps, we are constantly looking for landmarks. You will rarely get directions in small cities, where someone will tell you to take first Main Road and then the third right from the signal and the second left. Part of the reason for this, is that our roads are not always based on a clear north-south and east-west grid. Streets curve and meander, the landscape is busy and chaotic and roads are suddenly designated one-way making us go the long way around.

Street signs, location signs and advertising boards clash at an intersection

Aside of the city plan, which is not scientific, the Indian is also attuned to his space in a different way than the West. In our cities, where all kinds of messages, construction, lifestyles and activities proliferate in a permeable way, the Western pattern of sign making has been implanted almost artificially. While this is the most orderly and sensible system for signs, in the chaos of Indian environments, the sign loses its functionality. The typical patterns on a street in Chennai show how the sign tends to merge rather than serve a clear direction. Communication in the city is not planned with forethought but by responding to immediacy. The sidewalks become a temporary space for setting up shop. The walls are transient spaces for political propaganda, painted over many times to relay different messages. The lampposts may hold signs for local tailors or print shops. The street sign quite often repeats itself as a standard white on blue sign and the older black on yellow painted sign on the wall.

Street sign obscured by a car wrongly parked on a pavement

The multidimensionality of the sign is similar to the way people ask for directions. Many times. We are unlikely to reach our destination without stopping by a local vendor or auto-rickshaw to confirm if we are going the right way. The bystander is typically a support for giving directions.

Street signs at traffic signal merge into tree foliage

In one conversation with Rathna Ramanathan, UK based designer from India, remarked how she enjoyed looking at the way sign painters in India were innovative about squeezing in messages into the side of a lamppost or a narrow space in the wall. In the context of these patterns, designing signage could become an interesting exercise, if we were to put aside the preconceived notions of design and respond to Indian culture. “Go straight down till you come to the Temple and take a right soon after that. Keep gong down till you come to a big water tank.” These are the kinds of directions one tends to hear, rarely about the road or the number of turns. Responding to the quality of spatial experience and our tendency to tell stories with the sign could be an exciting and transformative way of experiencing space. Even people could be part of the system on a campus. Aside of maps and aligning with devices such as Google Maps, the physical space could provide markers – a clay horse, a small pink temple and a tree with messages – all of which becomes the physical temperament of the signage system.

As we travel down a road, in the West, the road’s name can go on forever. In India, the road’s name can actually change along what appears to be a single straight track, after a junction is crossed. The continuing narrative of the street as it grows from one identity after another should be part of the signage system. Designing directions must stem from our relationship with spaces and how we as Indians perceive environments.

Written by Sujatha Shankar Kumar
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