EVERYWHERE A SIGN: Interior Design Standards for Commercial Signage

various business signs of all shapes and sizes Signs are a fundamental aspect of commercial interior spaces. Most of us barely notice the many signs we encounter in any given day—until we find an example of commercial signage that’s poorly executed. Getting it right not only involves understanding current building codes, but also working closely with clients to develop functional, appealing and brand-consistent solutionswhether building code-required evacuation plans, room labels or directional signage, venue-specific signage or donor acknowledgements.

an illuminated exit sign and a room 320 sign with numbers and braille The Alphabet Soup of Sign Standards

measurements around a sign that reads "in case of fire do not use elevator use stairs" For commercial spaces, there are a myriad of mandated standards for signs that must be followed, including how and where they should appear. This includes everything from evacuation plans, maximum occupancy limits to exit routes and areas of refuge. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards require signs for every permanent room or space in a commercial or public use building.  These signs must adhere to a specific set of visual and Braille standards, as well as specific mounting locations. Interior designers must reference not only ADA Standards, but also the International Building Code (IBC) and other guidelines put out by the International Code Council (ICC) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Life Safety Code.

Jessie Santini points out, “Interior designers must also check for local or state amendments that can have different applicable standards. For example, the NFPA Life Safety Code (NFPA 101) is not adopted for all jurisdictions, but when applicable, has some variations from ADA and IBC.”  Egress signage is another key consideration, which must be placed per the applicable building code to assist end users with finding their way to safety in the case of a fire or other emergency.  This includes tactile and illuminated directional exit signs, stair tower signage to direct both occupants and emergency responders and elevator signs.

several directional signs

a sign above a seating area that says "area a" Signs to Point You in the Right Direction

In addition to their functional application for navigation, building addresses and directories provide opportunities for reinforcing your organization’s brand and either improving the end user’s experience if done well or creating frustration when that is not the case. For a positive experience, directional signs should be visually straightforward for quick and easy comprehension, supplied at all key decision points in public circulation pathways and consistent in their message and approach.

“There’s nothing more confusing than having multiple names for the same space or varying instructions from one sign to the next,” according to Deb Kimmet. “Keep it simple and straightforward,” she advises.  “It’s important to keep signs consistent with your brand, but not at the expense of readability.”

Capital Campaign Acknowledgement Signs

donor sign example

For many clients, donor signs are an integral component of development initiatives. The form and materials used for these types of acknowledgements vary widely. Donor walls, plaques and electronic displays can be expensive and time-consuming so it’s important to get it right the first time. According to Jessica Myers, the three critical components for success are:  “1) start planning your donor acknowledgements at the beginning of the process; 2) involve your designer and the signage manufacturer in early concept discussions and 3) check and recheck the donor information before final production!”

landis donor wall at an art gallery The basic goal is to work with clients to design something that is unique to their organization, reinforces their brand and ultimately blends into the architectural integrity of the building. However this requires close collaboration to review the desired location, lighting needs, size expectations and what that means in term of readability, as well as defining a start and stop time for adding names including whether future flexibility is needed.

Early coordination between the design and manufacturing process is particularly important to promote a smooth installation and control costs while allowing for a higher artistic level of end result.  “Seemingly little details, like what’s behind the wall where we want to mount a series of graphic panels, can create a whole lot of challenges at the end of the process if they aren’t accounted for in the production process,” says Jessica.

branding sign examples for the compass club and viva centre
Compass Club at Falcons Landing, Potomac Falls, Virginia and Viva Centre at Woodcrest Villa, Lancaster, PA

Signs that Define a Particular Brand

Branding signs start with the first impression logo sign at the front desk.  Beyond the overall organizational identification, there are often other opportunities for signs in specific spaces within a hospitality, healthcare or other public venue space.  These signs allow for more design creativity, but must still adhere to a few basic principles for success. A branding sign must provide a distinctive and unique identity for an individual space such as a café, define the consumer experience within that space (e.g. relaxed, casual grab ‘n go space or full service dining) and ultimately reinforce and unify your overall brand.  Disney Resorts have many great examples of how separate venues can each have a distinctive identity while maintaining visual consistency with the resort in which they are located as well as the overall Disney brand.

Current and Evolving Trends

asus business hub media sign
Photo Credit: ASUS Business Hub

Like other aspects of design, signs are evolving with new technologies.  Digital signage, touch screen reception screens and directories are a big trend in design, including health care, according to Jessie Santini.  “Today’s screens are available in wider, yet slimmer profiles with much higher resolutions for better picture quality,” Jessie states.

Video walls are also becoming more commonplace, offering a great way to make an impact in spaces ranging from public transportation hubs to hotels, educational institutions and even offices. Another evolving technology for digital signs is responsive content that changes based on external triggers such as time of day, traffic or the weather (e.g. a café screen will display promotions for hot drinks when it’s cold). This creates an engaging, positive experience for the consumer by anticipating their need at the right place at the right time.

f&m gender neutral bathroom signage
Franklin & Marshall College Student Housing; Lancaster, PA

Haptic or kinesthetic is another new innovation in which electrostatic fields stimulate nerve impulses that register in the brain as various physical textures such as smooth, bumpy or rough. The technologies being developed will be overlays that can fit over any existing touchscreen, and add a totally new dimension to interactive displays.

Codes are also evolving, with changes coming for single-user restroom signs that reflect gender neutrality.  The 2018 International Plumbing Code updates signage requirements for single-user restrooms, and some local jurisdictions are taking their own initiative to promote inclusiveness.

Function Leads Form

Signs illustrate how interior design directly impacts life safety and user experiences.  Although their functional role makes it easy to overlook them when thinking about interior design for commercial spaces, they can be an appealing environmental component when handled properly both from a code compliance and aesthetic perspective.  The best way to achieve this is by involving both the designer and manufacturer as early as possible in the process to define code requirements and aesthetic objectives, research available materials and make sure the design vision will work for each particular application.

Jessie Santini, IIDA, WELL AP, LEED AP BD+C, has 15 years of commercial design experience.  She holds certification for the National Council for Interior Design Qualifications (NCIDQ) and is an exam volunteer for the Council for Interior Design Qualification (CIDQ) reflecting her respect for the human health, safety and welfare aspects of the interior design profession.

Deb Kimmet, IIDA, LEED AP ID+C, has been working with our clients since 1997 to incorporate both code required and branding signs that reflect the desired visual aesthetic and organizational brand while keeping the end user’s experience in mind for functionality.  Deb also has earned certification for the National Council for Interior Design Qualifications (NCIDQ).

Jessica Myers, has focused on the visual design aspects of various types of signs, particularly branding and donor recognition.  She earned a Bachelor of Arts in Integrative Arts from the Pennsylvania State University.  Jessica is particularly skilled at working with clients and sign manufacturing professionals to meld creative ideas with functional design solutions.

Jodi Kreider – Blog Editor