CallisonRTKL Celebrates Six Districts through Santa Ana Wayfinding

CallisonRTKL’s Environments Studio and the City of Santa Ana Redevelopment Agency developed a wayfinding system—eight years in the making—that unites and spotlights six unique districts across a 20-block area.

Santa Ana’s downtown is a vibrant and culturally rich community, comprised of six districts that are home to thriving local businesses, residences and government buildings: Fourth Street Calle Cuatro, East End, West End, Artists Village, Civic Center and the Museum District. It is such an eclectic place that the American Planning Association described the city’s architectural heritage as “a unique blend of Beaux Art, Classic and Spanish Revival, Victorian, Craftsman, Brutalism, California Contemporary and a dash of Art Deco.”

As a part of a significant regeneration effort, Santa Ana’s City Redevelopment Agency wanted to improve the city’s wayfinding system. Their goal was twofold: to unify and identify the downtown area as one diverse destination while maintaining each district’s unique character and to positively impact the flow of vehicular and pedestrian traffic into and through the district.

“We understood right away that the districts were celebrating their own individuality and we could help develop that into a more cohesive system with a very clear sense of hierarchy that would still provide a unique sense of place for every district,” said CRTKL’s Megan Cerda Contreras. 

Each of the six districts has its own architectural characteristics and personality, but the distinct signage was causing confusion when moving from one district to the next. The city wanted to unite the disparate styles with an overall design but retain the charm of each neighborhood. A unifying system would also give visitors a sense of arrival coming off the two major freeways that flank the city and provide continuity as they travel through the downtown area.

By working closely with city staff, tenants and stakeholders, CRTKL’s substantial research, site surveys, and charrettes informed them of the community’s needs, concerns and parameters. CRTKL analyzed the city’s current wayfinding strategy to determine how best to program a new wayfinding system to address the navigational needs of cars and pedestrians. For example, visitors were frustrated by a perceived lack of parking, but the city’s six free accessible parking structures were not being fully utilized because they weren’t effectively signed.

The design team held interviews and solicited feedback from community stakeholders to ensure the design concept would be an accurate reflection of the community’s culture. “We approach wayfinding as a mix of art and science. We design functional systems that help visitors understand which district they are in and how to go where they want to go, while infusing the design solution with an enriching aesthetic directly tied to the local culture,” Contreras said. 

In the community interviews, the team asked for specifics in each district, like How do you currently direct people to find you? and Are you using physical references to refer visitors in the neighborhood? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answers were very consistent. Striking buildings like the bell tower in Fourth Street Calle Cuatro were already used as directional reference points, so the team created icons within the wayfinding system that correspond to these landmarks and help people move from one district to the next.

Insights gleaned from the surveys clarified the need for larger signs, less visual clutter at signage locations and a simplified system. Several requests reflected a desire for modern, bigger and bolder signage that embraced the community. The city’s desire to embrace local Latino heritage and community directly informed how CRTKL developed the visual language of the system. The design team used traditional shapes and dimensional detail for message panels and chose a rich color palette influenced by local Spanish revival architecture.

“Our goal was to create a celebratory design aesthetic that would live well within the existing environment,” elaborates Contreras. Extensive site walks and photo documentation helped to determine conditions for pedestrian wayfinding and dictate the scale for signage, vertical height clearances and message heights needed for each of the user groups.

The project was not without its challenges. After the team completed the design development phase, the project was put on hold due to the recession. Five years later, the project was given a green light to reboot. Throughout that time, CRTKL maintained communication with the client group.

“It was a challenging time that caused us to adapt. You always want to make sure to have a throughline so you never lose focus or lose the project, especially on a project like Santa Ana that has so many voices,” says Joanne Jen, CRTKL designer and wayfinding strategist. “It was through good documentation that we were able to pick it up where we left off and see it through to fruition,” adds Contreras.

When the project restarted, the team reengaged the community members and stakeholders by holding group interviews to confirm the design solution would still be applicable and to make sure any new voices or concerns would be adequately addressed. “It was important to them that we were there to listen, hadn’t forgotten about them and wanted this project to enrich their community as much as they did,” remarks Contreras.

The final concept shaped a contemporary, cohesive design vocabulary for Santa Ana while maintaining a link to the city’s heritage. From illustrative building icons to a vibrant color palette, each of the over 50 signs in the 20-block radius contains an added artistic element to reinforce the cultural aspects of the city.

Directional messages throughout downtown Santa Ana allow visitors to navigate and explore nearby districts and maintain the flow of vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Perhaps most importantly, though, the program was instrumental in connecting all six districts, introducing a shared identity, which celebrates each district’s distinct character.

“As designers, we bear a responsibility to serve as a conduit between the community and other stakeholders while providing design solutions that are not only attractive, but functional and sustainable as well,” adds Jen. “By executing this approach well, we were able to cultivate a new look and feel unique to Santa Ana—something that boosts civic pride.”


Project Name: City of Santa Ana Wayfinding

Client: City of Santa Ana

Location: Santa Ana, Calif.

Open Date: March 6, 2017

Project Area: 6,969,600 sq ft (20 city blocks)

Wayfinding Design: CallisonRTKL

Design Team: Katie Sprague (vice president); Angela Acosta, Megan Cerda Contreras (project managers); Tanesha Barnes (project accountant); Benny Chu, Joanne Jen (designers)

Fabrication: AD/S

Photos: CallisonRTKL



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