Downtown Raleigh Wayfinding

July, 18, 2007, by Mark

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Getting to and through downtown Raleigh is a nightmare, whether you live in the city or not.  Even seasoned veterans are baffled by one way streets and informative signs on Raleigh’s I-440 Beltline.

And it is not exactly inviting.  Right now the gateways into downtown Raleigh look something like THIS.

Cue Corbin Design, hired by the city to design a new wayfinding system for downtown.  Their portfolio includes Atlanta, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Kansas City, and Milwaukee; it is no surprise that they were chosen by the city following an invitation to interview for the job.  The majority of the information design for our new system is extremely well thought out and clearly stated.  (Downtown findability will be accentuated if DOT takes Corbin’s recommendations for signs along the beltline—suggestions that are outside of the original scope of work.)

The aesthetics of the project, however, are questionable.  Let’s start with a faux mid-19th century Neo-historic style base; the form is typical of Rococo-Romanticism period influences and Industrial Revolution iron casting technology.  No less, it was a contextualist move by the designer, inteded to help the signs ‘blend in.’  Whether the individual installation is a five foot destination marker or a twelve foot gateway, the proportion appears stretched or magnified to fit the function of the piece, giving a distorted sense of scale.  Play between the more contemporary (yet non-functional) perforated metal fin, which sports a literal solid oak leaf ‘motif,’ and the functional dark blue sign with its traditional script and serif typefaces comes across somewhat disconcerted.  In fact, each part of the whole seems to be in competition with the others.  The curve in the sign may be pleasing to the eye, but it is an arbitrary move that aims to “add interest” to an otherwise unexciting arrangement. 

But don’t put off the confused aesthetic composition on Corbin just yet—the city of Raleigh is not exactly the ideal design client.  (Look into last year’s rejection of Jaume Plensa’s proposal for City Square, for example.)  Part of the tension in Corbin’s design is undoubtedly related to their lack of creative freedom and definite direction with the project.  The Historic Districts Commission will certainly speak out against anything contemporary.  The Appearance Commission is chaired by an engineer and speckled with an odd mix of seemingly unrelated professionals.  Other parties involved in the process include the DOT and Public Works Commission.

Please understand that these municipal units aren’t exactly composed of educated designers (making educated design decisions.)  Even if this was the case with the City Council, I wouldn’t look to them to vote this one down for political reasons alone.  (Thomas Crowder is usually the only council member with the balls to voice out against half-ass design, despite political circumstances.)  Perhaps the neo-historic outcome of this wayfinding project is a good example of our reluctance to admit that Raleigh is no longer a sleepy farming capital, and that our city is entering the technological and intellectual boom of the 21st Century.

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  • yeahyeahgirl
    07/18 04:01 PM

    i haven’t even finished this article yet but it brought something up that always pisses me off about raleigh- why the hell are they hiring a firm from michigan to do the wayfinding project instead of one of the bazillion great local artists/designers that live here??? i understand the value of objectivity and i realize cities do this kind of thing all the time but that doesn’t make me feel any better about it.

  • yeahyeahgirl
    07/18 04:05 PM

    now that i’ve finished the article i’m even more annoyed. i agree completely with your assessment of the “design” of the signs- quite the hodgepodge and ho-hum. all the different styles mixed together DOES however reflect the unfortunate architectural trends in new homes around here so maybe it’s just right…

  • Mark
    07/18 04:17 PM

    I think that selecting a Michigan design firm (no matter what their credentials are) is representative of the fantastical notion of some city officials and groups to try to make Raleigh a “world class city.”  I agree that hiring a local firm would be more appropriate, and that a local firm would better equipped to generate designs that are appropriate for Raleigh.  Where’s the loyalty?

  • Barden
    07/18 04:28 PM

    Good point, both of you. I think Mark is right, the city is going outside in order to further throw Raleigh’s name out, and make us appear more Metro.

    The whole bidding process seems a little skewed.

  • Shannon
    07/19 01:24 PM

    There is much more to wayfinding than the design of signs.  The firm has a lot of experience in wayfinding, and I would wager—I would at least hope—that experience in wayfinding is why they were selected.  There are few firms in Raleigh with this kind of credentials.  Most likely, the firm will partner with local engineering firms so that they, too, can build experience.  (Remember that most major projects are headed by fewer firms than are actually involved as subcontractors.)  But designing the signs is very secondary, and no one will ever agree on what they should look like.  However, I agree that a more contemporary or modern approach would be more suitable.  As long as it doesn’t look like the ridiculous signs at NCSU.

    I will give up some aesthetics for a gain in usability.

    Disclaimer:  I am in no way affiliated with the firm, the City of Raleigh, nor even know more about the project beyond what I’ve read here.  I do know how many projects of this scale and type (and with local governments) work through my own experience with similar firms.  So the above is speculation on my part.

  • Mark
    07/19 02:31 PM

    No doubt, Corbin was selected because of their expertise in helping people get where they are trying to go.  I agree that there is much more to wayfinding than signage design; but for the general public—residents of Raleigh in particular—the major impact of this project on daily life will be in the formal and experiential presence of this system.  Since this project is not yet out of the ground, all we have to go on is the design boards presented for the physical appearance of the signs.

  • Chad
    07/19 03:07 PM

    While creating legible spaces is primary to the role of any wayfinding system it will also undoubtedly add to the collective identity of downtown Raleigh. What will this new identity be? Of course identity is not derived from physical objects alone, but the signs will function as indicators of the values, history and culture associated with downtown Raleigh; especially to first-time visitors. The signage also has the possibility of informing future designed objects, spaces or printed matter within downtown; either intentionally or sub-consciously. For these reasons I believe the visual qualities need to be addressed with more consideration and finesse because of the rich context the signs will become integrated into.

  • elizabeth
    07/27 07:32 PM

    I’m the project manager for the City on this project and I’m glad to see the active debate. Your points are well thought out and echo some of the questions and concerns we heard (and raised!) when working on this design. One clarification: this was not a selective RFP, but was opened up as wide as possible and advertised on the SEGD website. We had great responses, and only one local branch of a national firm responded- no other Raleigh firms. I’d be happy to discuss this project with any of you- just get in touch- I work at the Urban Design Center at the corner of Hargett and Fayetteville.

  • Mark
    07/27 07:51 PM

    Elizabeth, thank you for your response.  It is a shame that only one (sort of) local firm responded to the advertisement.  There is so much talent in our area, and I personally would like to see some multi-disciplinary collaboration on projects like this one. 

    Thank you for your clarification, and we will make the correction.  I was told by Robert Brengman, Senior Design Associate from Corbin, that Corbin Design was invited by the city to interview for the job, and I was unaware of the open RFQ.

  • WiseOne
    04/13 01:45 PM

    Don’t let the political speak put you off, just because it went up for public bid doesn’t mean it’s a true act of liberty. Elizabeth who decided we need to have this way finding anyway? Definitely not a election issue I see now three sets of signs in Raleigh, the new blue ones, the old green ones and the older brown ones. Come on, it must be fun to sit on council and replant ideas when the old one seem out-dated…they must need some activity to make them look official. Maybe we should offer $100 gps units in the water bill and get rid of all the signs.

  • Joyce Miller
    01/02 08:21 PM

    Raleigh is certainly going through tremendous transition which makes developing a viable wayfinding system that much more complicated requiring alignment with all of the key stakeholders.

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