Who is this for? Thinkers
What is it About? Building Signage Planning
Reading Time 5 Minutes

Building Signage Planning

“Have you noticed how nobody ever looks up?”  asked the Mary Poppins actress Julie Andrews. perhaps referring to how no one, but her filmic wards, watched her character arrive at the Banks family home.

“Nobody looks at chimneys, or trees against the sky, or the tops of buildings. Everybody just looks down at the pavement or their shoes. The whole world could pass them by and most people wouldn’t notice.”

She wasn’t alone in this observation. Robert Baden-Powell the founder of the Scouting movement for boys had given a positive use for this “fact” years before: “If you need to hide, hide in a tree, no one ever looks up”  I’m paraphrasing; from memory of what the great man wrote, illustrated by a between the wars ink drawing of a plucky young scout, looking down through oak leaves to where two men with rifles and WWI Kaiser style helmets searched beneath – without discovering the brave lad.

Before we become pedants and start counting how many things we look up at – don’t do that, you’ll spoil the story – there are fine reasons why “The Theory of UP!” Should be kept in mind.

Humans are predators.

Not only do we not look up very often, at least not since Pterodactyls stopped being a worry, but we don’t look behind very often either, (Leading to the “Theory of Gone” but that’s another story).

While visiting out of town shopping malls, you may think you have looked up at shop fascia – those bright global brand signs – but most likely you haven’t.

You were looking across at them, not “up”.

Plane in the sky? Only if you are laid on your back on the beach, or your head doesn’t need to tip back more than 10 degrees – across not up.

You can walk the length of a high street, not seeing a single store front sign on your side of the road. Then get run over – like the magpie you are – drawn in by the shiny logo on the other side.

The logo you looked across at, not up to.

We are predators, not prey, we don’t look behind or up.

We are programmed to look for prey (the latest shoes), danger (charity tin shaker) and protection (against anything we might bump into or anything we might step in) coming from the front or below.

We look across, we look forward, we look down – we don’t look up.

So Mary / Julie wasn’t wrong, neither was Baden Powel – neither are you – if you are still counting how many times you look up (stop it).

When we design signage for buildings, or displays in schools, shop fronts in malls or on high streets, we need to use this human characteristic to inform the design.

Can the target audience look across, to the location of the proposed brand image or information? From what vantage point are they most likely to see it? If they are directly under the sign, not looking up, what do we put in front of them? Do we need to install something else that is on an obvious eye line, which will then draw the customer’s eye to the display or message we want them to see.

A Graphic Designers Eye Line is the equivalent of an Architect’s Desire Line – just using eyes instead of feet.

When the plans for landscaping around a building are drawn up, the good architect, or rare and occasionally thoughtful town planner, studies the approach the public might take to or around the building and let that inform pedestrian routes and way-finding.

If this isn’t thought through the “Desire Line” – that path – worn in the turf covered open space, will always indicate the shortest route people naturally want to go and the architect / planner missed or ignored.

That is where the actual path should have been planned in – or hard objects put in place to force people (ignorant of the architects great vision), to go the way they are told to go!

In the same way, your eye follows the line it knows to be right: Along an undeveloped river, across the far horizon, following the line of a bird’s flight, that you look across at – not up at.

It is actually how we manage to drive at faster than walking speed – our eyes naturally adjust to the line and flow of the road ahead – not what is immediately in front of the car.

The Limbic Brain, that oldest part of our grey matter, which evolved before we were capable of speech, communicates to the other hemispheres of our brain and neurosensory hard drives, through emotion. Those things that we can’t explain but we say, “It feels right” or “I’m not happy about that” often with no logical or pragmatic reasoning to back it up.

This part, of the amazing machine we carry around on our shoulders, has recorded memories and experiences going back millions of years and passed them down through the generations in our DNA; telling us as children that sweet tastes are good for us, while sour tastes may be harmful, to always look forward, across and down, and to get out of the way when a wooly mammoth is crossing the tundra.

It also tells you the way something should look: Flowing, simple, the way things grow and evolve. Anything that doesn’t, it tells us, should not be there.

If the eye line along a row of neat human scale buildings is suddenly interrupted, by a Brutalist concrete slab of a tower block, your sub-conscious doesn’t like it; it tells you something is wrong, it makes your mind uncomfortable.

Ever been stressed by a day in the city with all its right angles and boxes and sharp corners? It’s because the shapes and comparative scales never appear in nature.  Then you go to the coast or the country, and the blood pressure stops thundering in your ears and all is well.  It’s because nothing is interrupting the lines that your Limbic brain is telling your eyes to follow.

Knowing this to be the case, we can use both sides of what the Limbic brain is warning our audience about – to our advantage.

We can make places and spaces that allow “good” feelings; comfortable, unstressed – opening minds to suggestion – but we can also use those “bad” feelings; discomfort, intrigue, excitement, adrenaline rushes (however minor) to force the viewer to look where we want them to look – even UP!

The natural “line interrupted” may make us subconsciously uncomfortable, but also draws the eye in another direction – put simply if the vantage point of the viewer hides or disguises the site of a sign or message, (which you can put no where else), then find a location in the natural eye line, take the eyes of the audience along it, and force the Limbic brain to make them look where you want them to look.

There is more to design than pretty pictures.

Whenever we work with a client who needs to attract and hold attention, through physical media such as signage, large format displays or “Brand Infused Art” this – the “BSE Theory of Up!” is where we start.

* And no – the predatory Wolf isn’t looking up  – he’s howling at the Moon with his eyes closed!

Stop it!


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