David Hockney created a 3m x 2m artwork of a crossroads in America, (part of his ‘joiner’ series) using thousands of individual photographs, titled ‘Pearblossom Highway’. The subject matter is interesting and the image successful due, largely, to the number of road signs that face the viewer, but it’s not always such a positive image that’s presented.
This is going to sound like a rant, but next time you walk the streets of any city centre just take note of how many times you wander beneath a huge traffic direction sign. We take it for granted, but when you actually take time to look up you’ll see that those anonymous grey poles are supporting huge signs. What’s more, look at what you see from the rear, it’s not pretty. But this is just one example of the huge array of ‘urban clutter’ and paraphernalia that we’ve learnt to ignore.
Surely the sole purpose of a sign is to convey important information to any potential viewer, and yet oftentimes we appear to inadvertently hamper this process. Signs have historically provided us with warnings, legislative information, wayfinding, general help / information, business advertisements and premises information. But now we can often add items such as wifi, hygiene ratings, affiliation with organisations and societies, social media, other quality ratings, awards and credentials, delivery and pickup information etc.
For instance, one random sign scenario I’ve noticed is an illuminated digital motorway sign on the M5 displaying the message ‘Sign not in use’. Both inaccurate and pointless. In fact, I’ve rarely seen it display anything of much use and it must have cost a fortune to erect.
A lot of my frustration really stems from the impact that ‘over-signage’ (not sure if that’s really a phrase) has on our urban environment. Sure, if you have your own premises, it’s completely up to you to put signs wherever you want, but within the public realm this is a different matter. Often our town centres appear littered with all manner of items placed there by different stakeholders. These might include, in no particular order, direction and traffic signs, telecoms boxes and poles, electrical transformers, refuse and recycling bins, lighting poles, cycle racks, bus shelters and stops, parking meters, planters, benches, and now electric car charging points. All these are generally required in some form, but it’s the coordination and choice of items that creates the visual and physical urban clutter. There’s a real risk to visually impaired pedestrians too.
The quality of our public realm speaks volumes about the quality of a place in general, and the attitude of those charged with controlling it. It displays the shared pride and value that we place in our surroundings. It links the present with the past and relates to the uniqueness of a place. It’s often the first impression we will gain, before we even get out of a car or bus. The urban environment can transform an ‘anywhere’ place into somewhere much more special. This can be seen in locations such as the Royal William Yard, where the paving, signage and planters throughout the site are of high quality and relate to each other and the context, so that the whole experience feels coordinated and of a high quality. The difference here is of course that it’s a managed site where all such proposals can be controlled, and it’s been redeveloped from scratch, providing the opportunity to start again. Time brings clutter, and over time we accept and ignore it, we just don’t see it.
The West end of Plymouth’s City Centre has undergone a revival in a similar manner. I was walking through here recently one sunny morning, and the introduction of the ‘festival’ colours and planters have really helped to lift the place. The quality isn’t quite there yet, it does feel a bit temporary in places, maybe it is, and there are a few random ‘insertions.’ But you can feel the effort to pick up on the themes and history of the place, and there appears to have been a significant effort to reduce the amount of urban clutter.
So, what’s the answer? I think that sometimes you just have to start again with a clean slate. The current works to the pedestrianised city centre of Plymouth is providing this opportunity, so let’s not put the clutter back in. Clever design solutions can help to deal with this. Can items / activities be combined, so that one item does several jobs? For instance, a planter that combines seating and maybe refuse / recycling, electric vehicle charging and lighting. Clustering related items has a similar effect, avoiding spreading the clutter. There should be a shared language for as much of the urban realm as possible, a design guide that works just the same way as the branding guidelines documents our graphic design team produces.
The signage does need to then follow-suit and there should be an approach where the necessity for any sign is questioned first, with longer-term place information built into the urban environment. Signage can be art, and it can enhance the visual environment. There is a great example of this at the entrance to the Barbican in Southside Street, where large scale signage is also art, and this provides an instant identifier to any visitor that this is a place with its own identity and history.
With technology moving as fast as it is, and our mobile devices providing information about our surroundings I can see a time when far less physical signage is required. Couldn’t parking be automatically charged to our accounts and based on the time we are parked in a zone, with flat rates agreed and alerts sent to your device automatically? With the advent of automated vehicles, how much road wayfinding, warning / legislative signage and road markings will we really need in the future?
Roadside railings are another pet hate of mine. They are invariably ugly and dirty and provide yet more scope for unnecessary items to be attached to them. Do we really need to be corralled in this way? Take Notte St in Plymouth, which seemingly randomly has sections of road-edge railing and then has none. I’m sure a Highways Engineer can provide a legislative reason for this, but to me there’s often little pattern or need. If there is a real reason to have them, surely something could be provided that creates some visual return, maybe combining lighting or signage. Less but better is what I’m suggesting.
Another part of the jigsaw is the premises themselves. In recent years there have been some very poor shopfront insertions within the very centre. And not just the shops, also some of the external areas of makeshift decking and planters These external spaces are fantastic in terms of bringing activity and greater capacity, but their design should relate to the whole and be properly controlled. Poor premises design, installation and clutter can bring down the whole quality of the retail area and ultimately affects lease uptake, lease values, attraction of new retailers etc. This can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Local Authorities can do their bit through investment in empty, rundown shop units. This can promote uptake by start-ups, and Plymouth in particular, as a fairly blank canvas, could handle a bit of flair, fun and funk when it comes to the design, including the signage.
The first step towards improving our urban environment is to learn how to see what is all around us, and then question the need, value and quality of it all. Have you noticed how much better they seem to be at this in France?