The subtle art of signage

Simon Lee told Exhibition News about when it comes to event signage, getting visitors from A to B is an art form. It didn’t take long, however, for them to become clear that signage can influence the visitor journey round an exhibition in much more subtle and complex ways than simply pointing them in the right direction.

When Exhibition News sat down to write a feature on signage and wayfinding, we naively thought we knew what we were in for. Visitors attend a show, there are signs pointing to keynote theatres, star attractions, places to eat and, most vital of all, the loos. Easy peasy.

It didn't take long, however, for it to become clear that signage can influence the visitor journey round an exhibition in much more subtle and complex ways than simply pointing them in the right direction.

"When we're faced with an unfamiliar environment, research shows that our instinctive decision-making process is highly influenced by the visual clues and spatial characteristics inherent within a building's layout," explains Simon Lee, associate director at Maynard Design.

"People often confuse the word wayfinding with signage," he continues. "Wayfinding is a much broader term, and defines the process of how a person orientates themself within their environment, and how they identify the correct path to their chosen destination. Signage is merely one element that can assist with wayfinding, it's an important part but by no means the only tool for navigation."

As every organiser finds out, sooner or later, signage plays a vital part in ensuring visitors have a positive experience at an event. While visitors might be unaware of well-made and well-placed signage, it can have a significant effect on their enjoyment if it's insufficient, even if only subconsciously.

"Event signage can inspire and motivate," William Perron of Perton Signs, tells EN. "It can help influence people's attitudes and decisions, or even creative processes." For exhibitions in particular, given their size and maze-like rows of stands, signage is vital to ensuring visitors can quickly and easily go where they want to be.

"Nothing is more frustrating than not being able to quickly find the exhibitors and sessions that were the reason you registered for an event in the first place," says Thomas Walczak, managing director of Eventlgnite. "The quicker the event can deliver the promised experience the more engaged visitors become, which impacts on all other aspects of the event."

Signage has changed immeasurably over the last decade, adds Mark Wilson, account director, Insite Graphics.

"Ten years ago, most signage was fairly rudimentary," he explains. "Rarely straying beyond printed PVC banners, inkjet printed foamex signs or cut vinyl lettering. Advances and investment in printing materials, technology and techniques now allow us to print on almost any substrate, and to develop new and engaging ways to produce effective and impactful signage. Too often we see signage that's perfectly functional, but that lets the whole event down because it doesn't reflect or enhance the show's branding."

The physical appearance of signage can have an almost subconscious impact on visitors. While it may contain all the relevant information, if signage is inconsistent with the overall style of a show the effect can be jarring.

"The effect of signage on the visitor's perception of an event cannot be overstated," continues Wilson. "If you have poor, unimaginative or sloppy signage everywhere it will impinge on people throughout their entire visit, eroding any favourable impressions of the event in the minds of visitors. Good signage should be invisible unless you're looking for it, but clear, unambiguous and instantly recognisable when you do."

Let's get digital

Digital signage has the potential to make a huge impact on the signage sector, and is already being used in innovative and creative ways to improve the visitor experience. One especially handy use for digital signage is providing real-time information to event attendees.

"At Star Wars Celebration 2016, our responsive digital signage was critical in making sure that 60,000 Star Wars fans avoided disappointment and got to see their favourite celebrities," Walczak tells EN. "16 digital signs and billboards displayed the availability of the most in-demand panel sessions in real-time, as well as average queueing times for the busiest features at the show, digital timetables for all event stages and real-time availability of merchandise.

For shows and conventions with hugely popular celebrities in attendance, or presentations and sessions that are oversubscribed, well-produced digital signage could mean the difference between an audience and an angry mob for event organisers.

"Digital signage will become even more commonplace at events as organisers put more emphasis on visitor experience, and on 'digital sponsorship opportunities for their exhibitors," continues Walczak. "The most exciting development, in my opinion, will be interactive digital signage that will help every visitor find relevant content and exhibitors seamlessly, thanks to personalised recommendations."

So, it appears that signage, like many sectors in the exhibition industry, is in the midst of a period of innovation and experimentation. The latest tech, personalised experiences for visitors, and creative wayfinding tools are all making huge changes to the sector, and EN will be keeping an eye out for the latest developments as we visit shows.

The future looks bright for the sector, and visitors are sure to feel the difference, even if only subconsciously.