Golden Gate National Parks Signage and Wayfinding

Signage is Golden

In the Golden Gate National Parks, a new wayfinding system unifies a vast system of urban and rural sites, informs and guides visitors—and lives up to San Francisco’s high design standards. 

For San Franciscans, visiting a national park is not something you have to drive hours to do. Here, the Golden Gate National Parks—a system of 19 sites spanning 80,000 acres in three counties—are very much a part of the urban experience. In addition to tourist attractions such as Alcatraz, Muir Woods, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Presidio, the system includes beaches, forests, meadows, and city neighborhoods as well as bike and pedestrian trails used by thousands of San Franciscans daily. An estimated 17 million people visit the parks year-round to swim, hike, bike, explore nature, and learn about history.

So when it came time to overhaul signage for the system, it was clear to designers and clients alike that the ubiquitous “brown signs” standardized by the National Park Service might not work well across this park system’s wildly diverse settings. And some of the system’s more popular attractions called for unique approaches to identity and complex information hierarchy.

“San Franciscans are passionate about their national park lands. The parks are not something you go to; they’re all around you,” explains Wayne Hunt, Principal of Hunt Design, which has worked on the parks’ signage for a decade. “There is a pull to do unique things, and the funding and attention they get is above and beyond many other parks.”

Signage that had been installed in the parks over time was inconsistent and in a multitude of design styles. “There was a hodge-podge, with no consistent messaging or hierarchy,” says Kate Bickert, Director of Park Initiatives and Stewardship at the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, the nonprofit development arm of the Golden Gate National Parks. “Many signs hadn’t been maintained, some had graffiti, and others had been taken down and not replaced.”

Updating and unifying the park system signage was top of mind when the Parks Conservancy launched a new initiative in 2003 called Trails Forever, which sought to bring trails up to a national park standard, make them sustainable, engage people in their stewardship, and encourage people to use them.

“We needed to approach wayfinding in a new way and create a system that would visually connect the urban, rural, and historic areas of the park to create consistency, identity, readability, and functionality,” says Howard Levitt, the National Park Service’s Director of Communications & Partnerships for Golden Gate National Recreation Area. His agency, the Conservancy, and the park’s governmental arm, the Presidio Trust, enlisted Hunt Design to create guidelines for a new signage and wayfinding system.

Bridges and balances

From the outset, the Hunt Design team knew it had many bridges to build in the project, including finding the common ground between three clients with different cultures and ideas about what the signage should look like. The GGNPC has its own graphic identity with Michael Schwab-designed logos. The National Park Service (NPS) has its UniGuide, the sign design standards for all national parks in the U.S. And The Presidio Trust wanted a seamless system with design cues that would clearly identify to users which part of the park system they have entered.

Another layer of challenge was applying the NPS UniGuide standards—which are oriented toward more traditional parks in natural, relatively isolated settings with clear entrances and exits. And finally, the Hunt Design team knew its solution would have to live up to San Francisco’s design-driven self-image—without hogging the spotlight.

As the mediator in these disparate and sometimes conflicting design issues, Hunt’s team had to balance the clients’ individual interests with the need for a consistent, succinct, and well-designed signage system that, according to Hunt Design Principal Jen Bressler, “would satisfy everyone’s shared goal of making the parks better and more accessible for people.”

Banding together

Hunt Design’s system is a kit of parts that allows park needs to drive elements used in specific sign types. The system takes primary cues from the UniGuide but departs from it to allow the signage to blend into a wide array of settings without being too obtrusive. Trail and vehicular signage follows the UniGuide more closely, while signage for pedestrians, cyclists, and historic sites is more distinctive.

The Hunt team developed a colored banding concept that creates hierarchies of information. Signs can display up to four distinct bands: trail name in green, destination information in black, a large high-pressure laminate map (in multiple colors), and regulatory information in rust. Location information in the green band is always in white all-caps Frutiger, directional messaging is in white upper- and lowercase lettering, and regulatory messaging (i.e., no cycling, stairs ahead, steep grade) employs standard NPS recreation symbols.

Some trail signs feature simple white linework maps that help park visitors understand the nearby trail network. Secondary trail markers give terrain and sightseeing information. And, where appropriate, regional trail corridors are identified by the addition of unique trail emblems or logos.

Three different signpost materials—recycled redwood for natural areas, painted wood for historic sites, and galvanized steel for urban sites—also visually distinguish the different areas of the park system. Most signs are constructed of iZone high-pressure laminate, which is impervious to moisture and resistant to graffiti and fading.

Levitt describes the system as “an adaptation of UniGuide for consistency’s sake parkwide. Our requirement was that the new signs reflect some of the key characteristics of National Park signs, in particular the use of a band on top of the signs. Hunt Design was tasked with reflecting those key design characteristics, and we feel they did that quite well.“

Special circumstances

Where needed, the sign system flexes to accommodate the uniqueness of individual park sites. Signs at the Golden Gate Bridge Plaza include an illustration of the bridge and the color banding features green, black, and International Orange, the color of the bridge. Blade signs also have rust-colored directional bands for buses to help transit customers get to their bus stops quickly.

The Presidio Trust hired Kate Keating Associates, Inc. to develop vehicular, trail, and wayside signage for the Presidio. The parkwide design guidelines were modified so that the signs were able to convey the Presidio’s unique identity and history but still be experienced by park users as part of a seamless system. The trail band at the top of trail signs differs in that it is a deep red that reflects a unique historic color found throughout the Presidio. As many Presidio trails utilize former Army roads, sidewalks, or undesignated pathways that evolved informally over time, a new trailhead sign was designed that displays terrain data (for example running slope, cross slope, trail surface type, profile,), to help visitors plan their visit.

At Alcatraz, the completely revamped sign system features a distinct palette, using green, black, and bright red (rather than rust) color bands to differentiate information on signs. And a wider array of sign types includes an updateable program sign (think dry-erase board) for events that change daily, a three-sided map kiosk so multiple visitors can view the same information simultaneously, and brochure kiosks that hold maps in multiple languages.

TFN Architectural Signage faced some unique challenges in fabricating and installing the 125 signs on Alcatraz. For one, signage is constructed of scruffed aluminum with two clear coats to withstand the island’s harsh environmental conditions, including strong winds, salt air, and birds. Additionally, TFN had to use existing holes or create straps or special tension-mounted brackets for signs mounted on walls or existing poles to minimize damage to historic structures. But the biggest hurdle was getting the signs to the island. According to Rick Wojcicki, TFN Principal, larger signs had to be transported by barge—which travels only once a month—but installation was delayed another month until after the nesting season for the island’s bird colonies.

Signs of success

Since the first signs were installed in 2006, signage has been added incrementally as needed and as funding becomes available. To date, more than 1,000 signs have been installed throughout the park system, and the sign design is considered a success with park users and the clients.

“Everyone who has seen the signs finds them useful, clear, and functional,” says Levitt. “One of the things that’s exciting to us is that other parks are looking at our designs for inspiration.”

Hunt Design’s work with the Golden Gate National Parks is far from over. “We’re called back regularly to work on projects,” Bressler says. Last year, they designed signage for the festival celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge. More recently, they designed the vehicle graphics for a visitor center on wheels, called the Roving Ranger. And currently, they are developing a donor recognition program for the Golden Gate Bridge.

“The most amazing thing about this project was consensus-building,” says Bressler. “At the same table you have the Parks Conservancy, which is incredibly design conscious, and the NPS rangers, who are aware of their responsibility to make sure the National Park Service’s strong history and positive image are well represented. In the end, they’re all hikers and cyclists who are passionate about their parks. It’s been incredibly rewarding to find that middle ground.”

--By Jenny Reising, eg magazine No. 04, 2012


Client:  Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy

Open Date:  2006-present

Design:  Hunt Design 

Design Team:  Wayne Hunt art director; Jennifer Bressler project director/lead designer; In Sung Kim, Heather Watson, Kris Helmick designers; Eileen Hiraike production designer; Perry Shimoji, Dinnis Lee, Steve Hernandez technical drawings

Fabrication:  iZone Imaging high-pressure laminate panels; TFN Architectural Signage Alcatraz signage; Martinelli Environmental Graphics Fort Baker, Marin Headlands, Bridge Plaza signage; National Park Service and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy Trails Forever signage

Photos:  Mason Cummings/Parks Conservancy (except as noted)

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