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.