Signs of Change
A small project for Montreal’s city-owned recycling centers teaches a large lesson about sustainability.
When you’re designing signs for a network of recycling centers, it’s probably a given that they’ll be created using recycled materials and environmentally friendly processes. So it’s no surprise that new signs for Montreal’s Écocentres—recycling drop-off sites located around the island—are made from retired roadway signs.
But for the design team, Montreal firm Louis-Charles Lasnier Atelier, finding a sustainable solution to their client’s problem was less about materials and processes than it was about making sure they did the right project the first time around.
“Even if we hadn’t used old signs, the process was sustainable,” says Louis-Charles Lasnier. By relentlessly questioning the initial brief, using the design process to clarify operational issues, and involving Écocentre employees, the team developed a solution that improves visibility and efficiency at the sites now and for the next 20 years.
Montreal’s five existing Écocentres were originally owned and operated by different municipalities, but since the island-wide merger in 2002, their operation was taken over by the Ville de Montreal, eventually landing in its Sustainable Development and Environment Department. The client’s initial brief called for a sign program that could be rolled out across all five sites within a year, making the centers as self-serve and user-friendly as possible.
The goal, says Julie Millette, research officer in the Sustainable Development and Environment Department, was for residents to be able to visit any of the sites and quickly understand how they operate and where to drop off various kinds of materials.
“Operationally, it’s key for people to know that ‘Here is the bin where you drop off old lumber,’ or “Here is where we put metals or plastics,’” explains Millette. “If bins are contaminated with the wrong material, our vendors may refuse to accept them or charge us a higher price.”
The tricky part is that the drop-off locations change as bins are filled and emptied. “So the challenge for the designers was to create something that can adapt every day and even a few times a day.”
Asking the right questions
Before developing a proposal for the city, the Lasnier team did its homework, visiting the five sites and asking a lot of questions. “Often, the client didn’t have the answers,” recalls Lasnier. For example, the team wondered, how could signs streamline the process for users? Should the project involve a new identity for the sites, some of which are more than a decade old? Should each site have its own signage solution, or was a uniform system more appropriate? And how did the city see the sites operating in five, 10, or even 20 years?
By talking with administrators and with Écocentre employees, the team found that because they had historically been managed by different municipalities, each site had its own way of doing things. Consequently, there were wide variations in schedules, fees, and operations from one to the next. One element was consistent among them, however: Écocentre employees were key ambassadors to proper recycling.
The designers also identified a distinct lack of consensus about how operations could be improved. To gather input, they designed an informal employee survey, “which allowed us to get a broad range of resources involved in the decision-making process,” notes Lasnier.
Based on the survey results, Lasnier proposed that instead of rolling out a sign program at all five sites, they launch a pilot project at just one. “That way, the risk was low and we had the time to implement it over the winter, when there was less construction activity going on, and learn from the process.” The city agreed.
Resisting “the tyranny of green”
Based on their research, the Lasnier team concluded that the sign system had to make the recycling process—and the locations of bins for various materials—as clear and user-friendly as possible.
Before they could do that, though, they needed to make the centers themselves more visible. Écocentres are located off the beaten path, often on vacant lots or in spaces left over from rail yards. Existing signage looked “generic” and blended with the trees planted to make the sites literally look more green. “Of course someone thought the signs should also be green,” laughs Lasnier. “There is a certain ridiculous tyranny that if you are doing an ecological project, everything has to be green.”
Lasnier’s first step was to make sure customers know when they’ve arrived. And his approach was bold: use red because it’s attention-getting, dynamic, and suggestive of tools. Reuse old roadway signs, which are recyclable and in plentiful supply. And create a large, sculptural element that provides an unforgettable identity.
At 14 ft. high and 8 ft. wide, the resulting entry panels are actually larger than city ordinances allow, “but the scale needed to reflect the scale of what’s behind it,” explains Lasnier. The modular, three-sided structures recall the work of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, with blocks of color provided by assorted street signs wrapped around and screwed to an aluminum framework. The fronts of the signs were scraped and sanded to accept new paint and lettering, but in a clever nod to the function of the sites, the backsides were left alone, revealing their past histories for visitors to enjoy.
Project fabricator Pierre Fournier is a sculptor who works with whatever signs are available, coordinating with the city employee who stockpiles them once they’ve been taken off the streets. “Luckily, Pierre was open enough to the process that he was willing to recompose whatever signs are available into each structure, much like building a puzzle,” notes Lasnier.
Lasnier designed a distinct Écocentre lettermark using the typeface FF Pop by Neville Brody, as well as a system of simple pictograms—three that indicate what you cannot do on the sites (no smoking, no yelling, no idling your vehicle) and “to be fair,” laughs Lasnier, three things that you can do (cycle, walk, and bring your kids with you). Ville de Montreal has since adopted the lettermark as the centers’ overall identity.
Signs of efficiency
Once inside the site, users face a vast lot studded with huge recycling bins. In the past, the centers relied heavily on employees to direct customers to the right locations, using a combination of verbal directions, numbering for large bins, and some word signs. Hand-made signs often cropped up to fill the communication gaps.
During the pilot phase, Lasnier refined the system to minimize container contamination and improve efficiency. Rather than using less flexible word signs, the numbering system was extended to all the bins, from massive building materials to old toys dropped off for charity. Employees are still a key part of the communication, but the simplified numbers-only system is broadcast on a large, changeable directory sign centrally located on the site. The team initially designed numbered tearsheets to reinforce the bin numbering, “but people were uneasy about having a piece of paper that was only going to be used once, so we opted for just the directory sign,” says Lasnier.
Onsite, users consult the directory sign for the numbers of their destination bins. Bright red, 12-ft.-tall mast signs with waterjet-cut numbers—again fabricated from old road signs—are visible beacons across the lot, acting as general area markers. To unmistakably label the individual bins and allow for changes as the containers are filled and emptied, Lasnier designed 16- by 16-in. magnetic signs with waterjet-cut numbers. Additional signs number the small barracks-style buildings where household items, toys, and clothing are dropped off and resold.
Millette says the pilot project was a big success, showing that effective signage could clarify and even improve the efficiency of the Écocentre operations. Based on user surveys, some of the signs were enlarged to be more visible on the sites. The system has been implemented at the four other existing Écocentres, and will be used at a new center opening in 2011, as well as up to eight more sites by 2015.
For Lasnier, it was a small but complex project that required working with stakeholders, selling the solution to numerous committees, and ultimately, designing a sustainable solution—one that would work now as well as 20 years from now.
--By Pat Matson Knapp, segdDESIGN No. 31, 2011
Ville de Montreal
Design: Atelier Louis-Charles Lasnier
Louis-Charles Lasnier (creative director), Mathieu Cournoyer (graphic designer, producer), Maud-Fred Côté-Leblanc (industrial designer), (graphic designer)
Pierre Fournier (sculptor, fabricator); Boris Dempsey, Paul Duchaine (fabricators); Silkscreening and Painting Workshop, Ville de Montréal (painting, finishing)
Photos: Bryan K. Lamonde