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One concept which can greatly impact signage and which anyone who has visited Las Vegas would have faced on a daily basis is the concept of signage clutter and clustering. Signage clutter and clustering as one might imagine refer to groups of signs which are in a confined or close space.

Signage clutter and systems design for wayfinding

Positive Use of Signage Clutter and Clustering

Clustering is something which can sometimes be positive and at other times negative, all depending on the semiotic intention of the sign owners or planners. Consider the fact that the clustered signs might be owned by the same hotel, attraction or resort and intentionally be clustered to give holidaymakers the impression of a lively and flamboyant resort or hotel.

The impression as it were, that a lot is going on in the resort or on the message board can be intentional and a semiotic approach to creating an atmosphere appropriate to somewhere lively. Las Vegas is seen as a lively and vibrant holiday destination and city by most people and the aesthetics of the city are purposely designed and added in such as way as to support the positive use of clustering.

Signage clustering and clutter from over-signage

Unintentional Signage Cluttering

In many situations in tourist resorts and temporal spaces, clustering is not intended and it tends to be the result of poor planning, lack of coordination (i.e. between competing for travel services) or poor design and implementation. In the example below a picture taken at Plymouth Bretonside Bus and Coach Station in Devon, England.

over signage clutter in Plymouth, England

Image above: Even though the collection of signs in this small spatial area all perhaps have a purpose, one does wonder if 8 signs all sat within metres of each other, really has the impact which it really could or should have.

On closer observation, you might agree that some of the signs, in fact, are redundant!!!

Indeed, these signs provide one of the 1st entry points into the city for many visitors to Plymouth, England. One might be forgiven for wondering immeditale yhow structured and well organised or not, the city is.

Transportation hubs can play such a vital role in a cities or destinations image that these ‘Impact Points’ should ideally be maximised.

Below another example from my 2 years in South Korea.

In many Asian countries such as Japan, Korea and Thailand, clustering is a very common occurrence in tourist areas. In the photo below the signs tends to be all owned by different stakeholders in that each is owned by a different business. Several businesses can be housed in each building and thus the fight for signage space and prominence and effect is one which is approached with vigour by business owners.

How to a navigation system such as Seoul, South Korea for navigating the city.

Go to an airport and there are many cognitive decisions to be made and numerous signs to choose from. Some airports are quite advanced in terms of semiotics whilst other airports leave a lot to be desired. The best airports though find ways to use clustering in a way that provides information only at what is known as decision points. A few signs too many and you can find yourself going in the completely opposite direction and the start to your holiday becomes stressful.

Golden Goose

Design plays a very important role in this discussion in that priority has to be given to font size, style and colour so that the most important signs can be highlighted in terms of priority. Unfortunately, in a street where 30 businesses are competing for diners, each restaurant might seek to have a flashier and more exotic and dominant sign than its competitors, hence the colourful and complex signage you experience when walking through the streets of Hong Kong and Singapore.

If you really have an interest in signage cluttering, clustering, semiotics, signage and other related specialists areas, Seoul, Korea is really a fascinating country (and the food is outstanding too – make sure to try the dak galbi). Wherever you walk you will see signs and more signs. Seoul could be described as a semioticians paradise.

Why Signage Cluttering Can Occur

Clustering can occur for several reasons but the main two instances in which this happens is either through bad planning or through competition for space. Bad planning or even the lack of any planning at all or monthly or bi-monthly wayfinding evaluation, can result is signage remaining in place (and even added to) which is confusing, hard to read and if anything, detrimental to the intended purpose. Some travel spaces can involve layers of management which make decision making problematic and it can often be easier just to throw up a new sign, rather than try and manage the overall signage space.

The most interesting instances of clustering for me occur in many Asian countries and locations such as in Hong Kong, Singapore, Seoul (Korea) and Japan. Las Vegas (USA) is another great example. Locations where space is at a premium and where there is what I would call a ‘signage culture’ in which signage is almost seen as part of the attraction of the place, results in competition for signage space and positioning.

I could not imagine walking down a street in Gangnam, Seoul, without seeing signs and I would not want the area to change because for me it adds character to the place. It was always interesting to see the battle between store owners who were constantly trying to market their business ahead of others. Given that you can find many businesses crammed into a small space (with the impressive utilisation of every possible space). it can be a lesson on marketing and a fascinating experience if you are interested in marketing and advertising.

Signage design training

 

Conclusion

When managing a location or implementing or improving a wayfinding signage system, make sure to consider these 2 key pieces of advice:

  1. When including directional, advertising, informational signage in an area, group each of these types of signs and signage. Allocate a space for advertising signage and put all advertising signage together. Put all directional signage together and all informational signage together. Do not mix the 3 types of signage.
  2. Look at every piece of signage and decide if it is really needed. If it is redundant, the sign should be removed. This will apply more to wayfinding signage (directional and guidance signage) rather than commercial signage (advertising signage that draws in revenue).

Written by Paul Symonds.

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Dr Paul Symonds has a PhD in Wayfinding from Cardiff Metropolitan University in the UK. Paul works with the signage industry, airports and other locations providing wayfinding audits, consultancy and training.