Abu Dhabi Signage and Wayfinding

Clifford Selbert: A Sign Can Change the World

Abu Dhabi rose from the Persian Gulf sands in the 1960s after oil was discovered in the region. Once a small pearl-diving outpost, its population has grown to more than a million and today it is the second largest city in the United Arab Emirates—dense with opulent palaces, lush parks and gardens, and some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers. But until now, the streets had no names.

Clifford Selbert, FSEGD, will share his firm’s work on the signage project that is changing the world. He'll be a keynote speaker for the 2014 SEGD Conference June 5-7 in Atlanta! He spoke with SEGD recently about the street signs and the changes they are bringing to Abu Dhabi.

How did Selbert Perkins Design become involved in the project?

We had been working in the Middle East for a few years. Our latest project was public artwork, monuments, and way finding for the highway system in Qatar. Our Qatar client moved to Abu Dhabi and recommended us. We went through a long competition process, and in 2010 won the contract to design a complete new signage and wayfinding system for the city of Abu Dhabi. We were also hired to do signs for the 40 parks in Abu Dhabi as well as street furniture. 

Who was your client?

Our client was the Abu Dhabi Municipality. We also worked with the Department of Transportation, the Department of Municipal Affairs, and many other organizations and departments. There were many complicated political layers. We also collaborated with Norplan, the Norwegian engineering firm that helped us with research, the addressing system, and the technical aspects of the project.

What is the status of the project now?

Construction started about eight months ago on Phase 1, installation of street signs and addresses for the entire municipality. Now they’re expanding the program to the entire emirate. Phase 2 will be the vehicular wayfinding system and Phase 3 will be pedestrian wayfinding.

Before you did anything else, you had to name streets and devise an address system. How did that work?

The implications of not having a street naming or address system are enormous. This is common in the Arab world. Businesses are slowed to a crawl because deliveries can’t be made; you simply can’t get from Point A to Point B. People get lost trying to find businesses. If you don’t know where the hospital is, you’re probably not going to make it. Security is also a huge concern. People who live there have learned to navigate by landmarks, but now the landmarks are becoming invisible as the city gets more dense.

Think of more than 12,000 streets in a city the size of Boston. Then think of putting address signs on all the buildings on those streets, and signs on all the corners of those streets. A postal service had to be created. We consulted on a zip code system. We take all these things for granted, but in Abu Dhabi, it’s life-changing.

The naming process was very complicated. All names had to be presented on the signs in English and Arabic. We came up with themed names for the districts, then devised a structure for street naming. We considered a grid system that included numbered cross streets, like New York and other major cities, but they didn’t want any numbered streets because it’s too complicated for people there. They have a different numerical system and it was too confusing to include both. So we eliminated that approach completely.

How did you let people know about the new system?

Remember that prior to the 1960s, this was a Bedouin culture. The illiteracy rate is really high. Promoting the system was really important, and the Department of Municipal Affairs has taken that on, mainly through a website called onwani.ae. “Onwani” means “my address” in Arabic.

We also had to develop a pedestrian wayfinding system with maps, but when we brought maps to the first meeting, they looked at us like we were from Mars. We were told, “We don’t read maps here.” So although maps are being developed, people will have to be trained to use them. It’s a whole other layer of comprehension for a society that is largely unfamiliar with using this kind of information.

Street signs are equipped with QR codes on the posts, so that people can point their phones and get voice-activated information. The city’s maintenance department has a comprehensive map inventorying all the signs, so if they need to do maintenance they know exactly where the sign is.

What are the signs like?

From the get-go our client told us, “We will do this only if the signs are completely unique to Abu Dhabi.” The signs incorporate two languages, special colors, special materials, and special construction and installation processes.

They are the fanciest blade signs you’ve ever seen. They chose porcelain enamel because it’s the longest lasting and most weather resistant, and they can afford it. The porcelain enamel is framed in aluminum and attached to elaborate posts that are unique to each district. Some are illuminated.

They wanted everything to be gold or bronze (because they denote wealth), but we explained the importance of contrast with the environment and ended up with blue and dark red.

Fabrication and installation was awarded to two fabricators in Abu Dhabi. Phase 1 is $100 million.

Actually, the signs themselves are the least exciting part of the project. They are essentially simple street and address signs. But it’s amazing to me how one or two sign types can literally change a culture. It’s a sign, not a TV or even a computer. But these simple signs are going to change the world for a lot of people.

This was definitely not a high-design project, but it tells you how much design can have a strong impact on a culture. That’s what makes design so important…it really does matter.

Photos: Courtesy Selbert Perkins Design

Learn more about the Abu Dhabi signage project at the 2014 SEGD Conference June 5-7 in Atlanta!

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