Montreal Science Centre Signage and Branding

Pictos Vivants

Giant 3D pictograms and fresh new signage beckon visitors to the Montreal Science Centre.

Since it opened in 2000, the Montreal Science Centre has become a major attraction along the Old Port of Montreal, drawing more than 7 million visitors so far to explore science and technology through its interactive exhibits.

Like many science museums, it gets its share of school traffic, particularly teen-agers arriving by the yellow busloads. But for other visitors, many touring the Old Port for the day, the center’s location on one of the harbor’s long piers creates a barrier. Its challenge was to lure visitors down the long expanse and, once they arrive, point them to the site’s major attractions, including exhibits, an I-Max theater, boutiques, and restaurants.

This was the job assigned to Montreal-based Bélanger Branding Ltd. Bélanger’s goals were to use integrated branding, graphics, and signage to unify the long narrow site and the center’s two buildings, guide visitors to the amenities, and reinforce its brand as a leading science and technology destination.

Funny giants

The center already had the beginnings of a strong brand: the red molecule that appears as sculpture at the main entrance and on its website, letterhead, and other materials. The Bélanger team was happy to co-opt the energetic color, particularly since it would contrast well with the pale blue sign program for the Old Port (which Bélanger also designed) and differentiate the center from other Old Port destinations. Used judiciously, it adds pops of brightness to the site’s industrial palette of concrete, steel, and glass.

To lure visitors down the pier, the Bélanger team knew it needed sculptural elements scaled to attract attention. “We thought about pots of flowers, stars and moons, or science-related elements, but every time we presented our concepts to the clients, the committee couldn’t agree,” says Jules Bélanger, president.

Then the team began exploring human figures, eventually creating a playful cast of pictogram-inspired characters. These “funny giants” became the basis for the site branding, and Belanger recommended placing 12 of them around the site. Just two of the galvanized-steel sculptures were fabricated and installed: a 13-ft.-tall, 14-ft.-wide, kneeling figure looking through a telescope and a figure tumbling over the railing of a pedestrian footbridge. And while more of the figures would create greater impact, Bélanger admits, the bright red giants are cheerful additions to the industrial site and visually link to the new signage system.

Installing the figures was tricky, particularly when project fabricator Enseignes Perfection (Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec) needed to attach one of them to the overhead footbridge connecting the center’s two buildings. “We had to make sure that the ‘bonhomme’ was spaced from the handrail and fixed on the concrete structure with spacers, without damaging the handrail,” explains Alain Dupuis, vice president. The installation was done with a 65-ft. crane and the “giant” was fixed with 3/8- by 7-in. anchor nut bolts.

Branding attractions

The center had made do with minimal signage since its opening, but the Old Port of Montreal Corporation was increasingly hearing complaints from visitors and from the retail tenants on site.

“Key functions like the box office and restaurants weren’t marked, so people didn’t know where to go,” says Alexandra Jonnaert, marketing advisor for the Old Port of Montreal. New signage needed to identify key services, including the site’s 15 boutiques and nine restaurants.

The center’s main building is long and has several possible entrances, so Belanger focused on creating a promenade of pylon signs that show visitors the exact entrance they should use to access the services they want.

The 12-ft.-high, curved-aluminum pylons are topped with 3-ft.-diameter red disks bearing pictograms representing major amenities. Marching along the front of the building, they provide a running menu of attractions, making sure visitors can see what’s available to them.

Vehicle-oriented wayfinding consists of overhead directionals mounted to original steel pier framework, their attachments painted red and destinations in vinyl on aluminum bands.

Jonnaert says the new signage has made a huge impact. “People can clearly see where they need to go, whether it’s the box office or the boutiques. It really has helped people to know the science center better.”

Universal language

Because Bélanger had done the signage program for the entire harbor, they knew its visitor population is international—and multilingual. Language is a complex issue in Quebec: while the federal government requires signage to be in English and French, the provincial Quebec government mandates French only. Since the science center is located on federal government-owned land, bilingual signage was required.

The Bélanger team’s solution to this sometimes politically charged issue was threefold: use pictograms to the extent possible, minimize text, and when text is necessary, provide it in English, French, and Spanish.

“We thought the Port should be multilingual and as international as possible,” explains Bélanger. “So using three languages instead of two, we hoped, would help remove the irritating effect of the bilingual solution.” He admits, though, that using three languages on a sign is not ideal for the customer. “Our answer was using pictograms as much as possible to make the signs easier to understand and less stressful for everyone.”

Containing commerce

The science center also asked for Bélanger’s help in branding and revitalizing the site’s commercial promenade, a row of boutiques open from May through October. The original concept was to have inexpensive kiosks built, but the Bélanger team suggested that since the boutiques are located on the harbor, why not leverage the vernacular by transforming old shipping containers into service as shops?

So 18 of the big plastic containers—the kind designed to fit into the holds of huge cargo ships—were painted red and retrofitted as boutiques, complete with awnings, lighting, built-in shelving, and cutouts for sliding doors. The designers also made the most of the boutique exteriors: Lined up along the pier and bordering a section of the center’s parking lot, they created a unique opportunity for high-visibility graphics. So a series of port-inspired pictograms are rendered in white on the bright red containers, creating a huge billboard for the “Alley of Containers.”

Thanks to the new branding and signage program, the science center is easier for visitors to locate, pedestrian traffic is more fluid, and visitors have a better overall experience, says Jonnaert. “We had this huge building but people didn’t even know what it contained. The new signage system managed to resolve the problem and it has really made a difference.”

--BY Pat Matson Knapp, segdDESIGN No. 31, 2011


Location:  Montreal

Client:  Montreal Science Centre

Design:  Bélanger Branding Design

Design Team:  Anick Blais (principal in charge), Jules Bélanger (senior designer), Julie Margot (senior graphic designer), Martin Racine (technical designer), Anouck Giguère (assistant designer)

Fabrication/Suppliers:  Enseignes Perfection (project fabricator), AkzoNobel (paint/finishes), 3M (vinyl)

Photos:  Bélanger Branding Design

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