The Importance of Wayfinding Signage, Gateways and Banners

Signs. Think about it. What would we do without signs? Crosswalks, road junctions, parking, street names — signs are a critical element in our lives. When they are well done, we take them for granted because they help to make our travels stress free and seamless. When they are poorly planned, it’s all we can talk about. A welcome gateway to a town and an easy way to navigate – for residents and tourists – is an important part of downtown revitalization.

Since moving to a new town and doing my best to locate all of the trails and find the best places to shop/eat, the shortcuts and the town events, I’ve realized the importance of actively promoting your own town, to its residents and to tourists. For those of us without school age children or an existing network of friends where we live, it is very hard to be in the loop. My town does not do the greatest job of publicizing events or identifying and locating its resources/activities to those not in the know. We do not have a true welcome center or a coherent signage system, despite the fact that we are in the middle of ski country. As a new resident in town, I think one of the most helpful resources would be a “you are here” map and a good town website. If only all towns could have smart phone apps like the big cities do?! (I’m kidding, sort of.)

Aside from access to information, an important element for towns and cities is the gateway. What is the first impression that tourists will have when entering the town? Or, how will residents feel when returning home? People need to feel welcome and should be directed where to go for information or how to get to the business district, where to park, how to find the baseball field, post office or library, etc. And a “You are Here” sign at a critical crossroads or center of town could do wonders. Such a sign that features a circle to represent a 5 or 10 minute walking distance could be a good idea as well.

Downtown signage is a hot topic in communities, currently, in the United States and in Europe. (Check out Legible London and the article in Slate magazine.) The goal of uniform and complementary signs throughout a town/city will hopefully help to create a positive subconscious feeling for tourists and residents. In a way, it shows community pride in addition to providing an easy visitor experience. People are more likely to return if they have felt comfortable and not stressed when visiting. Right? An effective signage and wayfinding system is an art form – almost – or at least requires forethought and planning. The Project for Public Spaces provides information about how to create that effective system.

Living in and visiting small towns who survive partially based on tourism (actually much of Vermont’s economy is fueled by the tourism industry – come visit!) has opened my eyes and perhaps changed my mind about signage and even banners. A well planned wayfinding system has the power to change a visitor’s experience and to help the town succeed.

It is now that I have to retract my distaste for banners. I first wrote about them in 2008 when I lived in Southern Pines, because I felt that in this town they were not shared throughout the town and left out businesses. That, and they actually said the word “charm” on them. Okay, I still agree with myself on those facts. However, I think the use of banners can be effective and do provide a helpful guide for travelers. For a town who is working to establish a gateway and main street feeling, banners are a good step forward.

Historic downtown banners in Southern Pines, North Carolina (2008).

So the next time you are traveling in a new place or where you live, take note of the signage. What sort of system does your town have? What do you think about signage? How about banners? If you could offer a fresh opinion, what would you change?

A Life in the Trades: January 2010

Series introduction. October 2009. November 2009. December 2009.

By Nicholas Bogosian

It didn’t take too long after my move to St. Clairsville, Ohio to realize that the community’s architectural pride rests on two structures: the Belmont County Courthouse and The Clarendon Hotel. Both are a short walking distance from my home. The Belmont County Courthouse, as it stands today, is a mammoth Second Empire sandstone structure replete with Corinthian capitals, tall arched windows, and Justice statues. Built in the late 1880s and designed by Joseph W. Yost, it is still used today as the county seat’s courthouse and boasts some of the area’s high-profile cases.

Belmont County Courthouse. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

Across the street from the Courthouse stands the Clarendon Hotel, which was constructed in 1890 by Thomas Clark, superintendent of the Courthouse construction. It’s a 15,000 square foot Romanesque Revival brick structure which became a transient property over the past forty years. The city purchased the building and began to stabilize it in the 1990s under the direction of Dennis Bigler, Director of Public Services. Mr. Bigler has been the major proponent of the city’s downtown revitalization. Just having moved here, I can enjoy the fruits of their long labor. Coming upon St. Clairsville’s downtown through the winding and hilly Ohio Valley is a refreshing sight. Though passage of the Main Street Program never materialized here, the city has done well to implement a majority of the program’s phases.

The Clarendon Hotel. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

The Clarendon Hotel. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

The purchase of the Clarendon was the beginning of an effort to reuse the property and bring it back to its original function. The entire façade has been restored and the city hopes a developer will turn the building into a boutique hotel with a restaurant on the first floor. Though 12,000 vehicles pass the hotel daily on 40 (the Historic National Road), St. Clairsville’s downtown is not what one would call a tourist destination. This appears to be the biggest obstacle in finding developers. The city’s traffic is in large part due to its location on the Historic National Road – a main thoroughfare for the valley. Though lodging could be useful for out-of-town business people and scenic drivers, the city is really setting their hopes on the development of National Road scenic tours.

I recently got an inside peek into the Clarendon Hotel and got to see fragments of its past and current rehabilitation efforts. Most of the interior walls have had their plaster removed because of the extensive foundation work. Some ornament remains. Old wiring splays out from between joists. Walls reveal sandwiched layers of wallpaper and paint. The original framing remains, but very little else. Everything is bare and cold.

Foyer stairwell recently stabilized. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

Second story hall. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

Faux marble decorated fireplace. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

Felt wallpaper. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

Eastlake Door Knob. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

Third story parlor room overlooking old sheriff's building. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

Shag carpet covering the baseboards. Interesting. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

Historic window frames kept intact in newly constructed emergency escape. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

Tubs, sinks, heaters, and piping are organized in the basement. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

This was my first experience witnessing a massive rehabilitation effort which is utilizing Historic Tax Credits. Granted, the progress is slow moving, but the pride that the community has for the Clarendon is vivid and immediate. Lucy, who operates Sipper’s Café down the way, talks about her teenage daughter‘s ambition to write a history of the hotel. I recently served the mayor and his wife at a local restaurant. The Clarendon came up in our conversation and he told me he’d be happy to let me in anytime to look around. An original timber from the hotel with an impressive span of growth rings resides in my classroom at Belmont Tech. The Clarendon is hope for the city’s future vitality. Its completion will bookend a long list of rehabilitation efforts in the city and revive a nostalgic landmark to its original glory.

Special thanks to Tom Murphy, Dennis Bigler, & Brian Kralovic of the City Council as well as Mayor Robert Vincenzo for their assistance in my curiosities.