With All Due Respect
A new signage and wayfinding program for the National Mall informs and guides visitors, but treads lightly.
When Pierre L’Enfant envisioned a “Grand Avenue” that would serve as the central axis and monumental core of the District of Columbia, he dreamt of ceremonial spaces and a tree-lined boulevard "…four hundred feet in breadth, and about a mile in length, bordered by gardens, ending in a slope from the houses on each side..."
L’Enfant couldn’t have predicted in 1791 that 200 years later, the National Mall and Memorial Parks would stretch across two miles, contain more than 70 monuments and memorials, and be bordered by a score of museums, art galleries, and other cultural attractions.
He also couldn’t have foreseen that by 2010, 25 million people would visit it each year, that on any given day 60 languages would be spoken there, and that the National Park Service would issue more than 3,800 annual permits for events held on the site.
It’s a busy place, and it’s showing signs of wear and tear. Crumbling sidewalks and seawalls, dirty water, and trampled grass are just some of the maintenance issues that have prompted a major renovation initiative. Later this year, NPS will release its National Mall Plan to guide the restoration.
But some key improvements are already underway, funded in 2007 through the NPS’ Centennial Initiative 2016. A $2.2 million comprehensive sign system was one of the first projects undertaken as part of the initiative.
“The need to improve wayfinding and signage on the National Mall has been recognized for a long time,” says Jennifer Talken-Spaulding, cultural resources program manager for the park. “Every time I see a family standing on the corner of 15th and Constitution, with every person pointing in a different direction, I want to pull over and say, ‘We’re going to help you!’”
The Park Service hired Hunt Design (Pasadena, Calif.) to design a system that would improve pedestrian circulation, guide visitors to major destinations, identify monuments and sites, simplify the presentation of rules and regulations governing park use, and reduce sign clutter. Planning began in late 2007 and the first of about 300 new signs will be installed this spring.
“A completed work of civic art”
While America’s Front Yard is owned by the people of the United States, it is closely monitored and protected through the efforts of various federal agencies and public and private advocacy groups, most notably the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission. The CFA advises the federal and D.C. governments on design and aesthetics “…as they effect the Federal interest and preserve the dignity of the nation’s capital.”
In other words, any new signage must be approved by the CFA. In addition, the NCPC (the federal government’s planning agency for the National Capital Region), the State Historic Preservation Office, the Trust for the National Mall (the NPS’ funding partner for the signage project), the Smithsonian Institution museums nearby, the D.C. Business Improvement District, and many other agencies provided input based on their own missions and agenda. “Managing expectations and trying to determine how we could accommodate them, or not, was a major challenge,” says Spaulding.
Gaining CFA approval was a tall order, requiring iterative design reviews over a period of two years. “The feeling is that the National Mall has become cluttered over the last 100 years, and that it is ‘a completed work of civic art,’” says Wayne Hunt, principal of Hunt Design. “Many people in Washington think, ‘Why do we need signs?’ It’s obvious that the Washington Monument is the Washington Monument.’”
There is an inherent tension between local familiarity and the need to communicate with people who may be visiting the National Mall only once in their lifetime, Hunt continues. “You have some very caring caretakers of this property, and they take their jobs seriously. But they’re not thinking of the Italian tourist looking for a restroom or the elderly visitor who can’t find water on a dangerously hot day. It’s a very complex environment with difficult circulation and spatial issues. Visitors need information.”
For the CFA, “The biggest issue is the danger of visual chaos,” says Thomas Luebke, AIA, secretary of the commission. “You want something that is dignified and well designed that helps to unite the visitor experience, but doesn’t call a lot of attention to itself.”
Hunt Design made numerous presentations to the CFA, NCPC, and other groups. A breakthrough might have come when Hunt’s team prepared full-sized mockups of proposed pylon signs, installed them at key locations on the site, and invited CFA and NCPC members to see how the signs simplified communications without visually intruding on the hallowed spaces.
Following the rules
While the Hunt/NPS team initially planned to implement a complete signage system in the Lincoln Memorial area, using it as a pilot site, the work soon divided itself into phases based on sign types: regulatory, wayfinding, and identification.
Regulatory signs were the most straightforward and could be guided by the NPS’ UniGuide signage manual, a comprehensive standard developed by Meeker & Associates and adopted by NPS in 2002. UniGuide provides templates, designs, and fabrication standards for a wide range of regulatory signs, allowing the Hunt/NPS team to simplify and declutter a cacophony of signs that had been added over the years as perceived needs arose. An inventory showed that of more than 300 signs on the site, half were regulatory signs, many of them redundant, outdated, or unclear.
“For example, there were 20 or 30 regulatory signs posted around the Lincoln Memorial,” says Bob Clark, sign program manager for NPS’ 392 parks. “We were able to consolidate them down to just 10 or 15 that communicate much more clearly. We’ll actually end up with a better sign system with about 15% less signs.”
The project called for unique sensitivities and a design approach that could respond to the dignity and import of the individual monuments and sites.
“When you start providing wayfinding signs in a wide range of conditions, or marking an important monument, a standard NPS sign would not be reflective of the unique place,” says Clark. “We elected for more flexibility, although our standards do come through in the form of typography and layout.”
Wayfinding signage called for a “high-quantity” information approach that, at the same time, would create the least number of signs, the smallest footprint, and the fewest sight-line interruptions. In other words, a quiet system that would do its job but stay out of the way.
Because visitors approach the site from 60 different places, the Hunt team devised a perimeter of 47 welcome maps that will improve pedestrian circulation and help visitors find the sites they want to visit.
Replacing the park’s existing 10-year-old flat map was key. “The challenge is always finding the right balance of simplicity and detail,” says Hunt. The new map depicts the landscape in a birds-eye perspective that emphasizes major destinations.
After viewing the maps, visitors encounter pedestrian pylons that guide them to their destinations. The compact, four-sided vertical pylon form was chosen because it provided the most area for wayfinding information while taking up the least amount of real estate. And with four sides, the pylons eliminate the need for two signs at typical four-way intersections.
Initial designs employed a color-coded system that would help visitors visually sort through the many destinations on and near the site. But resistance from the CFA finally resulted in a monochromatic approach: 9-ft.-tall pylons incorporating dark gray porcelain enamel panels atop bases of solid block granite.
“The Commission members felt strongly that color might be too intrusive, and that the monochrome system works effectively and is dignified, elegant, and timeless,” says Luebke.
Hunt says the signs will achieve the project’s major goals: facilitating circulation and instilling visitor confidence. “I wouldn’t be surprised if people leaving the site are asked about the signs and answer ‘What signs?’”
The pylons need to quickly convey a large amount of information about multiple destinations. They’re organized into a hierarchy that includes a directional arrow on top, with three square panels beneath it, each devoted to one nearby destination. A larger bottom panel lists amenities and destinations farther away.
The “drivers” of the system, says Hunt, are pictograms paired with the destination names. Derived from a classic pictogram set designed by Lance Wyman and Bill Canaan for the Smithsonian in 1976, the system has been modified and expanded to include new destinations such as the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the new National Museum of the American Indian.
“During research for the project, we came across these beautiful icons that were in almost complete disuse,” says Hunt. “The only people who remembered them were the people who were old enough to have been around in 1976 when they were completed.” Only 6 of the 38 pictograms are original, but the set continues the spirit and classic aesthetic of Wyman and Canaan’s original icons. The new icons are always accompanied by place names.
Yet another challenge was meshing the National Mall signage with existing wayfinding for “off-mall” attractions such as the Corcoran, the Spy Museum, Kennedy Center, the Newseum, the Supreme Court, and about 100 more destinations covered in the existing Business Improvement District (BID) signage for downtown D.C. (designed by Calori & Vanden Eynden in 2000).
“Like every national park, we realize we’re a part of something bigger; we’re part of the urban core of D.C.,” says Spaulding. “The goal is to help visitors.” NPS worked with the BID, the NCPC, and the off-mall attractions to ensure that popular destinations and neighborhoods were represented on NPS maps and signs.
Negotiating sign wording was a separate but tricky issue. Entities such as the Smithsonian wanted the National Mall signs to include the museums’ formal (and often lengthy) names. “We argued for conversational clarity in the sign messaging,” says Hunt. “You want to talk in the same language as your guests.” So signs that point visitors to the new National Museum of the American Indian refer to the American Indian Museum.
The project’s final, monumental challenge is designing appropriate identification elements for the nation’s most treasured symbols of democracy. Part of the challenge is the notion (by Washingtonians, primarily) that the major monuments are “self evident” and don’t require labels.
“To me, the only obvious monument on the National Mall is the Washington Monument, and even that is debatable,” says Hunt. “Lincoln is occasionally confused with Jefferson or remains mysterious. I recently heard a parent describe the Capitol as the White House. And the museums look identical to many visitors.”
Ultimately the team, the CFA, and other involved agencies will need to agree on a rationale for signing the monuments rather than one specific approach, says Hunt. That rationale will embrace respect, appropriateness, and subtly.
Solutions may include simple treatments such as lettering added to existing walls, the addition of low curbs or stones embedded into the ground, subdued freestanding signs made of the same materials as the monument, or even UniGuide signage for smaller monuments.
“There won’t be a cookie-cutter solution,” says Clark. “Whatever we do must be unique to each situation, and with all due respect.”
--By Pat Matson Knapp, segdDESIGN No. 28, 2009
NATIONAL MALL SIGNAGE AND WAYFINDING PROGRAM
Client: National Park Service
Location: Washington, D.C.
Design: Hunt Design
Design Team: Wayne Hunt (project director); Katie Varrati (project designer); Dinnis Lee (technical director); In Sung Kim, Steve Hernandez, Christina Allen, Kris Helmick, Eileen Hiraike (designers)
Images: Hunt Design