“Finding our way and getting lost is part of life”: The exhibition highlighting the magic – or madness – of wayfinding design
Dn&co accepted open-call submissions for signs that caught their attention, sharing the stories behind them for the London Design Festival exhibition It’s A Sign!
- Dalia Al-Dujaili
- 23 September 2021
Have you ever stopped to notice the design of a road sign? Dn&co hopes to bring forward the often overlooked design discipline, by highlighting the world of wayfinding. The London-based creative studio specialising in culture and place hopes to implement its creative focus into this exhibition by platforming interesting signs from around the UK. Following a successful opening last weekend, the studio welcomes its second showing this weekend which will feature every submission received in some way.
The submissions range from arrows scribbled atop makeshift signage to huge nationwide motorway signs (those really big scary ones that no one understands). The studio hopes it can thus point to the beauty of a sign, something we rarely give a second thought – unless we’re lost.
“Wayfinding is a discipline that’s fundamentally about the relationship between people and place. But it’s also more than that,” asserts Patrick Eley, creative director of dn&co. Eley explains that wayfinding is more like a conversation between two people, “and like all conversations, it can be funny, helpful, uplifting and kind; a gentle nudge in the right direction and a guiding hand on your elbow. Equally, it can be moving, autocratic, pointed or mean; we’ve all been the recipient of a passive-aggressive fridge note, or the stomach-churning diktats of border control.”
Eley’s comments might make us remember how uneasy imperative airport signage makes us, but how comforting it is to see balloons outside a house informing us it’s someone’s birthday: ‘Party this way!’ The accompanying sign might read. Eley argues that signage often skirts a delicate line between instruction and persuasion and “the magic (or madness) that happens when those messages mix up.”
“We’ve long nurtured a healthy obsession with the hand-made and the vernacular of wayfinding,” continues the creative director, so the studio wanted to celebrate that by “holding up those signs that allow us to enjoy the journey as much as the destination.”
Zoë Barrett, the wayfinding director at dn&co (and the award for coolest job title goes to...) adds, “Without even realising, wayfinding can enhance or ruin your experience of a place — whether on a trip to the doctor, visiting an overwhelming museum, or starting your holiday at an airport.” Barrett and her team claim that they have a passion for the design of the wayfinding discipline. They’ve worked for clients like the V&A, Museum of the Home and the European Parliament, to name but a few. But Barrett says this doesn’t even begin to scrape the surface of the team’s “love of all things signage”. With It’s A Sign! dn&co hopes to extend the appreciation for the good, the bad and the ugly beyond its four walls. “I can’t be the only one with a plethora of toilet signs on my phone!”
I’m sure Barrett isn’t speaking only for herself; Eley agrees that it seems like everyone has pictures on their phones of signs they’ve spotted, which the team wanted to get out of camera rolls and onto walls for everyone to see, taking a democratic approach to typical exhibition curation and encapsulating the meaning of ‘public art.’
Although humans love to categorise, dn&co deliberately went against typology with It’s A Sign. It let chance dictate the layout: “We wanted visitors to enjoy the unexpected juxtapositions of the display,” says Eley. “From the sublime to the ridiculous and prudish to risqué, hand-written signs sit next to road markings next to formal notices next to shop signs and the new context reveals things that make you smile, laugh and double-take.”
“Finding our way and getting lost is part of life,” sums up Eley, “but as the world opens up and we start to explore our cities again, how do we know where to go and what we’ll find when we get there?”
The exhibition will be on display for free during the final days of the London Design Festival at the Ground Floor Space in Bermondsey from 24-26 September. An exhibition catalogue will be available to purchase, with proceeds going to dn&co’s long standing charity partner, Manna Society, helping the homeless of Southwark.
Benjamin Bostock: It’s A Sign!, Courtesy of dn&co
About the Author
Dalia is a freelance writer, producer and editor based in London. She’s currently the digital editor of Azeema, and the editor-in-chief of The Road to Nowhere Magazine. Previously, she was news writer at It’s Nice That, after graduating in English Literature from The University of Edinburgh.