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A natural sign language

In the myth of Theseus and Minos, Theseus, son of Aegeus arrives to slay the bull-headed Minotaur, a monster who orders maidens for his meals. The Minotaur is in the middle of a labyrinth and even if Theseus gets in, he is unlikely to find his way out. Ariadne, daughter of King Minos gives Theseus a sword and a ball of thread so the Athenian hero can return by following the thread. In the story of Hansel and Gretel from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, a poor woodcutter’s wicked wife, stepmother to his children, forces him to abandon them in the forest when hard times hit their province. Coming to know of the plan, Hansel collects a pile of pebbles, which he hides in his pocket. As their father takes them into the deep forest, he drops them all along the path. In the moonlight, the sparkling pebbles show the way to the children, who return home much to the disappointment of their stepmother. In these unforgettable images of finding ways, we see the human tendency of marking the route as a physical trail. Essentially, designing way finding is about making alternative trails with markers.

Indian Trail Tree

We design signage to orient people in space, so that we can locate ourselves comfortably to find our destination. How can a sign attract attention? How do we orient ourselves in a new territory as we walk through a space? What is fundamental to that specific space that can make connections with a sign? The investigations at WTC Noida by Lopez Design brought forth these crossings between man and nature, spaces and mythologies in our final solution.

From site to sign

World Trade Centres are set up all over the world and there are 317 members in 91 countries. There are over 230 complexes worldwide. At the heart of every WTC complex is the concept of a lively neighborhood that fosters business and exchange. Unlike signage for streets and city public spaces, WTC Noida allowed a coherent investigation, as it is a completely planned environment. A helicopter shot of the site reveals a predominantly green territory with farming plots called kheti incorporated into the landscape and terrace farming atop the two blocks. You can also see the essential structure of the plan, which clearly divides the entire campus into two distinct blocks. This helped us define the key methodology to the entire signage system, which was to delineate signage from the start for the two separate blocks. This was also reflected in the color-coding we developed, pink for North and blue for South. Inside, an interactive building directory was based on a UI/UX design.

A plan to deliver

One of the most crucial aspects of design in system projects is the delivery of schedule at every stage and project implementation. At Lopez Design, with our accumulated experience over many signage projects most recently for the Bihar Museum where world-renowned signage experts Mijksenaar came on board, we devised a step-by-step strategy for the project structure. The system saw great success in terms of delivery of schedules, exactly on the charts. Project Director Jonak Das says, “Except for the last phase of implementation, there was very little deviation from the plan.” Our critical approach towards deriving the plan also included a S.W.O.T analysis. The complex has one main pedestrian entry and two distinct blocks, North and South with separate vehicular access. We did persona studies to determine what would be the best navigation. People arrive at the Centre both by cabs and buses, so we analyzed pedestrian and vehicular movement. 

Nature, site and sign language

Constructed in the reclaimed riverbed land of the Yamuna, the development engaged with questions of ecology, manmade and nature. The site of the riverbed is transformed into a commercial complex and the architecture evolved from this theme of ‘Metamorphosis’ to support spaces such as the ‘Incubator’ that relates to the chrysalis stage, the Tower called the Butterfly, the central complex called the Moth and the office called the Caterpillar. Our themes for signage responded to site and nature, incorporating this language into way-finding as ‘Embracing Nature’ and ‘Back to Nature’. The sign was intended as an organic, living, unique and memorable device rather than inorganic, generic and transient. At the same time, the signage had to be extremely functional. We had to take into considerations the large open site that could experience gales up to 100 km/hr. Sand carried by winds could also cause weathering. We avoided synthetic materials like Corian or acrylic. Metal, wood and concrete were preferred choices.

Sculpting the sign

We teamed up with product designer Mukul Goyal who was already engaged for site sculptures on the project. Goyal’s sculptural approach was inspiring and in collaboration, we developed several possibilities at the concept stage that involved folding metal. For the freestanding signage, up to 30 variations of concepts with the ‘fold’ were created. While the sculptural forms integrated delightfully with the landscape, our graphic design team worked on how best the graphics would be composed on the surface for the information to be clear without obfuscation. The birds perched on the sign were crafted from copper and added the natural element of warmth and liveliness, anchoring people to the origins of the project. They were also reminders of the juxtaposition of our lives, which rest between manmade architecture and natural forms. The birds represent fragile aspects of nature and they are amongst the first to be affected if there are disturbances in the eco-system. The sparrow, which was once a household entity in Delhi, makes its appearance on internal signs. The crow, a hardy species, sits on the outdoor signs.

A system of signs

When we designed a standing sign, we took into consideration where it would be seen from and what the minimum height needed to be. At the same time, we were also devising how a user could follow the signs instinctively. The messages of the sign would be different at each point such as vehicular, drop off or internal identification. We made an entire table with messages for each sign. In all, there were fifty signs of nine basic sign types and twelve if we account for variations. The six formats varied from small, medium to large.

The WTC project at Noida tackled various levels of design, from sensory and aesthetic to functional, in a very organic but systematic way, almost like the design of the human body. There are several systems operating simultaneously, and everything comes together fluidly. Interacting with the physical presence of the body, we do not inspect whether systems are being regulated finely, but inherently, that is what makes the body function well. The recognition of signage as part and parcel of the language of spaces is the fine contribution in this environment. We continue to invest our energies in making spaces talk to people.

Written by Sujatha Shankar Kumar
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