Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport International Terminal Signage and Wayfinding

World-Class Welcome

When Atlanta opened its new $1.4 billion “global gateway,” the city knew that good wayfinding was a critical piece of the passenger experience. Gresham Smith and Partners made the connections.

When it opened its new international terminal in 2012, the world’s busiest airport established its new front door to the world. With a price tag of $1.4 billion, the new Maynard H. Jackson Jr. International Terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) adds 1.2 million square feet and 12 new international gates to accommodate the airport’s growing international traffic.

Project architects Atlanta Gateway Designers (a partnership between Gresham Smith and Partners and Duckett Design Group) set out to design a “timeless gateway” that would serve as a stand-alone terminal but also connect with ATL’s existing infrastructure.

Making those connections was a complex process that included constructing a tunnel 40 feet underground beneath an active taxiway to link the old international concourse with the new terminal. Just as challenging was the task of guiding more than 10 million annual international passengers to their desired locations in the new Concourse F and beyond to the rest of the airport, says Jorge Cortes, Assistant Director of Design, Planning & Development for the City of Atlanta Department of Aviation.

“This facility had complex connectivity challenges, and our focus was on ensuring that our directional signs were placed at the correct decision points and that they provided clear, concise, and consistent information to optimize and ease the movement of passengers,” Cortes explains.

GS&P’s Environmental Graphic Design Group was tasked with designing a comprehensive signage and wayfinding program that encompasses roadway signage, entry pylons, parking garages, curbside, terminal wayfinding, gates, code-compliant ADA signage, baggage information systems, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection areas. Color-Ad Signs and Exhibits, a Virginia-based firm specializing in large-volume turnkey projects, handled the massive fabrication, installation, and coordination aspects of an endeavor that cost $5.5 million (fabrication and installation) and included more than 8,000 signs.

Minimal, unified, and clear

Working closely with the architects allowed the environmental graphic design team to provide a unified look and feel for the signage as well as seamless connections between the new and existing airport infrastructure.

Project architects also understood the importance of intuitive wayfinding, says Jim Harding, GS&P’s director of environmental graphics. “So the architecture itself addresses some basic passenger circulation issues without being reliant on signage. That allowed us to take a minimal approach.”

The terminal’s check-in area is a prime example. As passengers first walk in the door, floor patterning and ceiling forms guide them toward common check-in counters, angled 45 degrees to instinctively move traffic toward the security checkpoint. Large windows overlook the airfield, the view helping to pull passengers in the right direction. Lighting provides a bright, “walk-this-way” reinforcement.

 “Our philosophy is that if you had the perfect building, you wouldn’t need any signs,” says Harding. “But in a 1.2 million square foot airport terminal, it’s pretty hard to pull that off.”  

Where signage is necessary, it’s clean and minimal. The signature design feature is a curved fin shape that complements the building's soaring architecture. The fins appear throughout the signage program, from overhead, truss-mounted roadway signs to identification pylons and interior directionals and even dynamic signage elements.

“From visitors’ first point of contact with the wayfinding system, we wanted to introduce the aesthetic of the terminal itself,” says Tim Rucker, environmental graphic designer for GS&P. So the sign panels mounted on standard DOT truss structures introduce the architectural curves of the new terminal and their custom vertical post supports draw inspiration from the architecture as well, with an aluminum-composite skin that mimics the tapered columns at the departures curbside.

The terminal’s gateway signs also echo the fin shape in a pair of soaring, 30-ft.-tall aluminum pylons with push-through, internally illuminated letterforms. The pylons also recall the shape of the tapered columns appearing in the terminal architecture.

Inside, a post-and-triangular-truss structure similar to the roadway signage appears on a smaller scale for informational kiosks and digital airport directories. The interior sign system features the fin shape on stand-off acrylic sign panels, an economical and flexible design choice that creates a three-dimensional look that is also light and airy in sync with the terminal design.

Making connections

The new terminal’s sheer physical scale and traffic volume, combined with necessary connections between the existing airport and new terminal, resulted in a complex scope for the signage program, says Harding.

“It took a lot of coordination with a large stakeholder group,” he explains. “We’d be in a room with 30 people, all representing different points of view about the airport and how signage could serve their needs. We had to work through that in a way that ultimately best served the passengers.”

The wayfinding challenges started on the interstate highway system, where new exits were constructed off I-75 and I-85 to direct passengers to either the domestic or international terminal. “We had to develop an entirely new wayfinding system once people got off the interstate exit to guide them to the new international terminal,” adds Rucker.

The biggest wayfinding challenge, says Cortes, was that international passengers arrive at the airport one of two ways: either through existing international gates at Concourse E in the domestic terminal, or through the new international terminal. “Connecting passengers arriving at Concourse E are processed through Passport Control at this concourse. However, terminating (Atlanta-bound) passengers are directed through a sterile corridor and are processed through our new Passport Control at Concourse F,” Cortes explains. Getting them through U.S. Customs and Border Protection and on to Passport Control and baggage claim from these multiple origination points required a very well planned and complex system of breadcrumbs.

The matter was complicated even further by the need to provide information in multiple languages. The airport decided it did not want to produce unwieldy, multiple-language static signs but instead relied on dynamic displays that can be programmed in multiple languages as needed. For example, beginning in the sterile corridors as passengers deplane and exit the jet bridges, digital signs alternate between English and the language of the originating flight. Passengers see the same information repeatedly until they get to Passport Control.

Static signage was initially planned to be English-only, but just before the airport opened, Delta issued a worldwide directive that signage at all of their major hubs would incorporate English and Spanish. That required some major scrambling for the team, including fabricator Color-Ad, which had a substantial portion of the program already installed.

“This created some huge challenges, as in some cases the sign panel and supports had to be made larger to accommodate the additional messaging,” says Michael Taylor, Color-Ad’s project manager. “Some of the supports had to be modified by entering the completed ceiling line.” Fitting the changes into the already-tight schedule required extensive coordination between Color-Ad, the client, the design team, and project coordinator Holder, Manhattan, Moody, and Hunt, to ensure the design intent could still be honored.

Integration with the more than 100 contractors on the huge site and interfacing with the client were also key to the project’s success, says Christopher Smith, vice president of business development for Color-Ad. “This enabled us to provide customer-centric solutions for numerous on-the-spot changes that could have hindered progress.” An additional $400,000 of fast-paced work for the long-term parking garage also had to be fit into the existing fabrication schedule.

Other wayfinding challenges included the atypical design of the dedicated five-level parking garage, where cars enter on Level 3 and are required to go either up or down to find a parking spot. “It was a huge challenge to educate people that they’re entering in the middle of the garage and to let them know the number of available spaces so they can make a correct decision about where to go,” says Harding. Smart parking technology with LED displays alert customers to garage status along the roadway as well as parking spot availability by level within the garage.

Other issues included a complex set of directionals for passengers on pre-cleared flights; these passengers are waived from the Customs and Border Protection segment of their journey, so they need to be steered toward the domestic terminal, where they pick up their baggage. “It’s a circuitous route, from the arrivals level down to the grand hall, down a level and around their elbow,” laughs Harding. The solution required providing directions to both domestic and international baggage claim at key decision points. Passengers are then sorted at the arrivals level and directed by signage to the appropriate destination. “This was just one example of the many complex wayfinding issues that arose.”

3D Modeling

GS&P also used 3D modeling extensively on the project. “Wayfinding is a significant design driver for all of our projects, so we always use 3D modeling as a tool to coordinate with the design of the architecture,” notes Harding.

During the early design stages, GS&P used Microstation and Sketch-Up for conceptual design modeling. Wayfinding was tested and evaluated in all phases of the project. Since then, GS&P has adopted Revit as its standard tool for Building Information Modelling (BIM). “It allows all elements of the building to live in the same 3D model, which makes the design coordination process easier than ever. So while the use of 3D modeling was great for ATL, the tools being used now are even better.”

Almost home

In spite of the added requirement for bi-lingual signage and a 25% budget cut midway through the project due to changing economic conditions (the overall terminal budget was cut by $400 million), GS&P and Color-Ad managed to bring the signage program in on time and within budget.

The airport is happy with the experience it’s providing passengers, and Harding has gathered his own feedback. He often flies through the airport himself, and shortly after it opened, spoke with a well-traveled couple from Budapest who said it was the best airport experience they’d ever had. On the other end of the passenger experience spectrum, after traveling on her first flight ever, his niece also declared the experience “very easy.”

“The project goal was to create a world-class travel experience for international passengers, and I think we accomplished that,” says Harding. In 2013, international passenger traffic exceeded 10 million, and Cortes says ATL’s job now is to monitor the ongoing effectiveness of the wayfinding program, “to ensure it continues to provide optimum passenger movement through our facility.”

--By Pat Matson Knapp, eg magazine No. 08, 2014


Client:  City of Atlanta Department of Aviation

Location:  Atlanta

Architecture:  Atlanta Gateway Designers (Gresham Smith and Partners, Duckett Design Group)

Environmental Graphic Design:  Gresham Smith and Partners

Design Team:  Jim Harding director environmental graphics; Tim Rucker, Betty Crawford environmental graphic designers; Wilson Rayfield architectural designer; Julia Rayfield interior designer; David Chesak, Jacob Parker structural engineers

Fabrication:  Color-Ad Signs and Exhibits primary fabricator, Forms and Surfaces Infonorm Flight Information System Structures, Sun Coast LED interior dynamic display signs, Daktronics LED displays (separate contract)

Consultants:  Big Sky Inc. security and dynamic messaging design and programming

Photos:  Chris Cunningham

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