Brisbane Multilingual Pedestrian Wayfinding

Wayfinding: The Lingua Franca

Brisbane’s new wayfinding system bridges the language gap for its growing Asian population. 

Australia provides an interesting study in population distribution. Collectively, the nation’s median population density is 2.9 people per km², according to a 2010 report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. By contrast, the United States contains approximately 34 inhabitants per km², per data cited in a 2011 World Bank study. By this metric, the Land Down Under is one of the 10 least densely populated countries in the world. Due to the unforgiving climate of its Outback regions, approximately 90% of Australians live in urban areas, and although they would never be confused with the extremely dense cities of China and the Pacific Rim nations, Australia’s urban cores represent its lifeblood. In contrast to its desolate regions, approximately two-thirds of Australia’s inhabitants live in its five largest cities: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, and Adelaide.

A concentrated urban population, intrinsic Aussie resourcefulness and friendliness, and alliances with such established partners as the U.S. and European and Pacific Rim countries have converged to create favorable economic conditions in Australia. Unlike most of the developed world, its economy grew by more than 1% even during 2009’s dark days, and unemployment never exceeded 6%. In addition to mining, its bedrock industry, Australia has also grown into a regional leader in manufacturing, information technology, biotechnology, tourism, and other industries essential for thriving in the 21st century.

Brisbane, Australia’s third-largest city with a population of about 2.2 million, is distinguishing itself as an international gathering place. So far the Queensland capital city has hosted such worldwide events as the World Expo and the Goodwill Games, and it will serve as the venue for the G20 economic summit in November 2014.

Brisbane’s heyday as an international gathering center appears to be forthcoming. Approximately one-fourth of its residents hail from another country, and, according to, roughly one in six of its residents speaks a language besides English at home. And approximately 80,000 foreign students take courses at area universities.

Considering these factors, forward-thinking city officials have been working to leverage Brisbane’s growth opportunities. Brisbane City Council commissioned a report, “Brisbane’s Unique Window of Opportunity,” which, among other factors, addressed the need for visual communications that enhance connections with Pacific-Rim immigrants, students, and tourists. According to Scott Chaseling, Brisbane’s senior urban designer, approximately 40% of its tourists visit from five markets: New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the U.S., Germany, and China. Not surprisingly, China comprises the fastest-growing of these markets and Korea, Japan, and Singapore are also growing segments.

Among other recommendations, the report cited civic wayfinding as a necessity to serve its foreign-born communities. City Council members approached Dotdash, a Brisbane EGD firm, about devising a new wayfinding program within the central business district. The city’s prior wayfinding system incorporated fingerpost signs bedecked in a dull, institutional blue, with smallish type and most critically, no acknowledgement of Brisbane’s need to serve its multi-cultural population.

Bridging the (language) gap
Dotdash, a 26-year-old Brisbane firm specializing in wayfinding, earned the project through a select tender, for which it was one of five firms invited to submit proposals. The firm had gained substantial international respect for its work developing environmental graphics for the Summer Olympiads held in Sydney, Athens, and Beijing.

Although the city has a graphic standards manual, Dotdash Co-Managing Director Mark Ross says it addressed signage only sparsely, which provided Dotdash with some latitude. For instance, although yellow was a secondary color in the original graphic-standards manual, Dotdash was able to implement it as the wayfinding program’s dominant hue, albeit a slightly more subdued gold tone.

After completing a demographic study of Brisbane and its environs, Dotdash and council officials determined that in addition to English, the wayfinding system should include Traditional Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Arabic.

Creating balance
Fitting wayfinding messages onto slender fingerpost signs in five languages was no easy task. “Our aim was to achieve a visual balance of weights and letterforms across different languages while still honoring each language’s individual characters,” says Ross.

To match the city’s existing environmental graphics, Dotdash employed Avenir for the English typography. Peter Rudledge, lead designer for the program, made typographic selections. In choosing the Asian typefaces, he navigated the limited number of sans-serif fonts within each and selected the faces with the stroke widths most similar to Avenir. Ross noted that manual adjustments were required to achieve the balance and the ultimate goal of providing sufficient information in a compact space.

Approximating a flat key shape, the sign blades contain English text, pictograms, arrows, and walking distances on the outer half and multilingual listings on the wider inner half. Rudledge says that because Japanese translations were consistently the longest, they were placed on the bottom row. Chinese messages were the shortest, and thus placed on top, with Arabic on the second row and Korean third.

Most of the pictograms used to help users identify generic destinations (transportation, stairs, etc.) were culled from universally recognized symbols. Two Brisbane-specific destinations—Brisbane City Hall and ANZAC Square, a public space honoring Australia and New Zealand’s soldiers who served overseas—required custom symbols.

If you build it…
The firm partnered with Harlequin Signs, also of Brisbane, to fabricate the program. Harlequin was on the city’s preferred bidders list and had collaborated with Dotdash on previous projects. Owner/Managing Director Michael Holzberger said Dotdash’s detailed design drawings clearly established the project’s intent and eliminated the need for any changes during fabrication.

Project costs were diminished considerably because Harlequin was able to install the signs on the established 1m-diameter, bored-pier footings that had been used to create Brisbane’s old wayfinding program. The panels’ supporting posts, which sleeve the existing posts, comprise square hollow sections of Alloy 304 stainless steel, a formulation that’s extremely corrosion-resistant––a necessity for a coastal environment’s heavy salt-air concentration.

A kit of parts facilitated efficient production. The perimeter cleat, which contains the Brisbane City Council’s logo, contains a pin that was fixed to the posts with an interlocking “key” system, which makes the panels easily removable and interchangeable. The directional blades were fabricated in 1cm-thick stainless steel that was waterjet-cut because of the precise finish the technology allows (the more competitive price point and more compact footprint of new-generation waterjets had made them an increasingly viable purchase for many sign shops). Stainless-steel barrel nuts secure the panels to the support cleats. To cap the panels, Harlequin adorned a 1cm-thick, aluminum panel with a 6mm-thick, laser-cut acrylic “walking man” pictogram.

To provide base decorations for the metal panels, Harlequin painted them inside a paint booth with Baslac 2K, a high-solid primer/filler that’s well suited to withstand the warm Brisbane climate. The multilingual graphics were cut on a Roland VersaCamm cutting plotter with 3M Scotchcal ElectroCut 7725 media. Harlequin decorated the cleats with solvent-ink digital prints, which were printed on a Roland SolJet Pro III four-color, solvent-ink printer with 3M pressure-sensitive-adhesive material.

Holzberger says the project’s structural engineering incurred its most substantial challenge. Although the program was retrofitted to fit the previous wayfinding system, the supporting posts and panels had to provide sufficient strength to allow for additional signage on each post.

“Fabricating signage with large directional blades yields posts that are very top-heavy,” he says. “Working with Dotdash, our structural engineer, and the client, we were able to install more support points to fortify the signs without compromising design integrity.”

The program has earned considerable acclaim. At last year’s Council of International Students Association Conference, Brisbane’s CBD program was commended as a textbook example of a city successfully internationalizing itself. And the program’s street cred is frequently affirmed by unsolicited comments on the Study Brisbane Facebook page, says Chaseling.

“From a tourism point of view, the international wayfinding is fundamental to positioning Brisbane as a global city and is key to improving the international visitor experience,” he says.

A second phase, which encompassed 14 additional signs, was unveiled last year. Chaseling says that although a timetable hasn’t yet been established, a third phase is likely.
Steve Aust has written about signs and architectural graphics for 14 years.

Jury comment
“So right for the streetscape in scale, visibility, form, and massing. Restraint is exercised to use only the space needed to carry the information. The multilingual messaging is artful.”

--By Steve Aust, eg magazine No. 10, 2014


Client:  Brisbane City Council

Location:  Brisbane, Australia

Budget:  $80,000 AUD

Project Area:  1 square mile

Open Date:  June 2013

Design:  Dotdash

Design Team:  Peter Rudledge (design lead); Mark Ross (director in charge); Domenic Nastasi, Keith Sullivan (technical designers)

Fabrication:  Harlequin Signs and Plastics

Consultants:  Aradia Pty Ltd. (translator)

Photos:  Larraine Henning/Dotdash 

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