Design Diary: Colorado State Capitol Wayfinding

Read Time: 15 minutes

ArtHouse Design (Denver, Colo.) shares their Phase 1 timeline from the Colorado State Capitol wayfinding system project, which took cues from the building’s architectural features and storied past.

By ArtHouse Design’s Associate Design Director, Zach Kotel

The Colorado State Capitol is a National Historic Landmark, one of Denver—and Colorado’s—most iconic buildings and is famous for its official mile-high elevation marker and gold leaf-plated dome. The ArtHouse Design team has been working over a span of three years on a comprehensive system of signage and wayfinding for the Capitol and Legislative Services Building in order to improve the navigability, legibility and overall look of the complex.

Staff from Legislative Services had determined that the historic State Capitol building was difficult to navigate due to its architectural symmetry and changing uses throughout the year. After years of incongruous attempts to improve the wayfinding throughout the Capitol Complex, layers of ineffective and confusing signage had accumulated throughout the campus.

ArtHouse was selected to design and plan a suite of signage and wayfinding elements to help remedy these problems and to add a degree of officiality to the spatial communications in the building. “To be chosen to design the wayfinding and identity signage for our over 120-year-old state capitol was a once-in-a-lifetime honor,” says Principal, Marty Gregg. “We are thrilled with the outcome of the signage and our team very much enjoyed the process.”


Winter 2017–2018  

Research and discovery played a key role in our process. From the outset of the project, our team met with stakeholders—visitor services, the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Governor’s office, the state historical society and the public—and conducted extensive visual, brand and positioning exercises. Representatives from the Office of the State Architect lead the design team on tours throughout all of the Capitol’s public spaces, as well as its back of house, and even “secret” spaces like the tunnels beneath the building and the room under the golden dome.

Mid-November: Visual Positioning Workshop and Dot Exercises  Working with project stakeholders, the design team established the visual and aesthetic look and feel of the future wayfinding and signage system, discussing considerations such as typography, materials, historic preservation, and sign function and placement. Wayfinding and signage needs varied widely among different user groups— staff, tourists, press, lobbyists, etc—and based on the time of year-in (legislative) session, out of session, during the school year, etc.

Late November–Early December: Wayfinding Assessment Workshop  We conducted a Wayfinding Assessment of the Capitol Building, Legislative Services Building and grounds to determine weak points in the path of navigation, opportunities for new or improved wayfinding, areas of confusion in existing signage and areas that will require changeable content signage, interpretive signage or signage specific to a use and time of year. Then we conducted a workshop with the project stakeholders to review our findings and gather additional feedback based on their experiences as some of the buildings’ key users.

Mid-December: Behind-the-Scenes Tour of the Capitol  Capitol staff and members of the client and project stakeholder groups led us on a guided and behind-the-scenes tour to provide context for the architectural, historic and logistical considerations of the project. We documented the architectural details and structural materials for inspiration.

January: Legislature Returns to Session & Strategic Internal Work  The client team was very busy preparing for and kicking off the legislative session. We met internally to plan our next steps, including timing, scheduling and deliverables, identified the various sign types needed and prepared initial drafts of location plans based on the Wayfinding Assessment workshops.

February: Proposed Location Reviews & Site Walk Prep  The ArtHouse team met with the client to review proposed location plans that detail signage by function, type and message. Preparing for our site walk, we created measuring devices and discussed our approach to collecting the information in a clear, systemized way.

Early March: Field Verification Site Walk  The team conducted an in-depth site walk to survey existing conditions. This helped us determine the sign placements and types based on the surrounding context, viewing angles and need for architectural sensitivity. Since current architectural plans were unavailable, this exercise helped us determine scale in the space.


Spring 2018

The State Capitol building is an architectural and historic jewel in Denver, and we strove to ensure that our designs were respectful of and referential to its historic context, but in a contemporary way. We combed the building for unique details to incorporate into the design, such as a simple scallop pattern on the risers of stairs, a Greek key pattern etched into glass or the state seal cast onto antique doorknobs. The use of gold was inspired by the state’s history with the Gold Rush and the building’s famed dome. Other moments of inspiration came from the (literally) one-of-a-kind Colorado Rose Onyx wainscotting found throughout, the state’s history with the Gold Rush, and the building’s famed dome. By incorporating these details into the design, the end result was a delicate balance between old and new, allowing our signage and wayfinding to contribute to the rich layers of history in the building.

Mid–Late March: Location Plan Review & Signage Prototype Development  The Capitol staff came to our office to review their comments on the location plans and answer questions. We shared insights gained from our field verification site walk, as well as expertise in wayfinding and signage design best practices, to refine the proposed signage locations. As a result of this meeting, we decided to create several prototypes at scale before signage design to better demonstrate placement and text size for signage at several locations. We conducted several studies based on type size, text and background color and sign type.

Early–Mid-April: Site Walk, Signage Prototypes Installed & Signage Design Process Begins  We met on site with the Capitol staff to decide which prototypes will be professionally printed and installed for the last two to three weeks of the legislative session. To collect feedback during those weeks on the installed prototypes, staff will use comment cards and questions tailored to various user groups. Meanwhile, we work on a template to use in designing initial sign type concepts.

Late April: Ongoing Signage Design & Location Plan Updates  We continued to develop and refine signage design concepts based on precedent photos from Capitol site walks and other research, creating renderings of select sign types in position to help the client better understand the proposed designs, placement and scale.

May: Concept Review, First Signage Design Presentation & Follow Up  Based on an internal review, we further refined our designs. We then presented three initial schematic design concepts with materials samples to the Capitol project team for the first time. We conducted another dot exercise with the project team to find out which of the overall concepts, as well as the specific design details, were their favorites. One concept clearly emerged on top.

June: Signage Design Development  We fleshed-out the design concepts for the remaining proposed sign types and made some small tweaks to the signage location plans. We also printed a full-scale, foam-core prototype of one of the exterior, free-standing wayfinding signs, for the client team to review on site.


Summer 2018

While this project was relatively smooth going, a key challenge was to design signage and wayfinding elements that felt appropriate for the building without creating an impression of faux-historicization. Working closely with History Colorado, we used key details to differentiate the signs from the building for a result that is sensitive to context, yet appropriate for the 21st century.

There was also a degree of flexibility needed in the final package, due to the changing uses of the building throughout the year. With free-standing wayfinding signs that lock into place or can be moved during events, the Capitol staff is well-equipped to handle whatever needs may arise. “The key to an effective wayfinding system lies in the details,” says ArtHouse Design Director, Beth Rosa. “From schematic design through design development to implementation, our team worked closely with Capitol staff to fine tune every element to get it just right.”

Late June: Signage Design Development Presentation  We presented our revised and expanded signage design family; through collaborative discussions, we identified the need for several additional sign types and a concern arose about ceiling-mounted signs being disruptive to architectural view planes in certain locations. We continue to study those locations before making recommendations.

July: Opinions of Probable Cost, Capitol Building Architectural Committee Meeting Prep In addition to further design refinement, we developed an OPC with budgetary estimates so the client could develop an implementation plan and assess the need for phasing, listened to a recording of a previous CBAC hearing, and created a slideshow presentation in preparation for the CBAC meeting.

Early August–Early September: CBAC Hearing & Project Maintenance and Management  The Capitol team offered insight on the CBAC’s procedures and protocols, then we presented the concepts to the CBAC and stakeholder groups: the initial designs were unanimously approved. Minor updates to the signage package were made and the team met internally to map out next steps.


Autumn 2018

During the duration of the project, several unforeseen additions came into play that made for an even richer experience for everyone involved and for the eventual finished product. Mid-way through, the Governor of Colorado held a ceremony with Colorado’s Native American tribes to raise their tribal flags in the Capitol building for the first time in the state’s history. At ArtHouse, we were able to contribute to this ceremony by designing commemorative plaques for each flag, and by digitizing the tribal seals for the first time as a gift to the tribes and tribal representatives.

Mid-September–Early October: Internal Quality Control Review & Design Intent  In order to be fully prepared to separate out the first phase of the signage elements, we did an internal review of the sign location plans for quality control. We also started on creating a Design Intent file that will be used to outline the exact measurements and materials specifications for the first phase of signage implementation. Phase 1 will mostly cover free-standing sign types, as well as changeable content signs and exterior signage.

Early October: Phase 1 Package & Interpretive Signage Feedback  The package was finalized and sent for internal client review. Approval at this time is vital because it will be the last opportunity to work with committee members before the mid-term election. Several interpretive signs were added to the package to ensure that the historic Ute tribes of Colorado are represented; full-scale mockups were provided for review. They received positive feedback and the tribal plaques will be part of a flag-raising ceremony in March, so these have been separated into their own package and fast-tracked to be ready in time.

Mid-October–Mid-November: Plaque and Package Updates & Second CBAC Meeting  Design and copy of the tribal plaques are tweaked for balance and final approval. With one plaque formally approved, we are close to getting the other two plaques finalized before the next Capitol Development Committee hearing. Throughout this approval process, we have addressed questions about braille, ADA compliance and the International Building Code. Several signs from Phase 2 are moved into Phase 1 for earlier implementation. At the CBAC meeting the committee asked to delay official approval until cost estimates are run by the CDC committee in December. The package is released to fabricators and installers for pricing.


Winter 2018–2019

As signage and wayfinding elements like this were installed in phases, ArtHouse received many anecdotal examples of how much of an improvement the new signs and wayfinding elements are for the space, specifically changeable content signage that allows for committees to post meeting agendas in an official, elegant way. “The rich history of the capitol demanded premium materials and finishes,” says Gregg.

Late November–Mid-December: RFP Responses & CDC Meeting  The fabricators we asked to bid on this project responded to the Interpretive Sign and Phase 1 RFPs to show their interest and ask questions. We will compile all of the questions and send answers to every bidder for equal and fair consideration. We reviewed and responded to all RFP questions received from fabricators last week, which included working out some fabrication technique details to ensure the highest-quality final products. The day before the CDC meeting, we met with the core client team to collect our thoughts and discuss some fabrication limitations and costs relating to both sign packages. With the tribal plaques formally approved and initial bids received, we felt very prepared for the hearing, and the committee unanimously approved both packages without question. After requesting and receiving pricing for two alternate fabrication techniques for the interpretive package from a select fabricator, we awarded this portion of the project to them.

Late December: Final Pricing for Interpretive Signs and Tribal Plaques & Fabricator Bid Coordination  The fabricator selected provided revised pricing for the interpretive signs, which we passed along to the client team so they could make a final decision on fabrication technique. For Phase 1, we worked with fabricators bidding to address questions and potential issues.

January: Tribal Plaques Fabrication Management & Fabricator Bid Discussion  Continuing our work on the tribal plaques, we collaborated with the Ute tribe representatives and Capitol staff to get final approval on the copy and layouts. With perspective gained from experience working with a variety of fabricators, we discussed the fabrication bids with the client, and approved renderings of the tribal plaques and samples of the tribal seal medallions.

February: Fabrication Management, Additional Sign Design & Installation of Tribal Plaques  A new sign type for the Old Colorado Supreme Court chambers was discussed: They need a sign to remind the public not to use those doors. With plans to have the OCSC signs installed in early May, we sent the approved designs to the signage fabricator for pricing, shop drawings, and finally, fabrication. The signage fabricator installed the finished tribal plaque signs in the atrium of the Capitol building. Early reactions to how the plaques look have been extremely positive.

Early–Mid-March: Tribal Plaque & Flag Raising Ceremony  The client is in the process of selecting a fabricator for Phase 1, so we’re on hold until that happens, likely at the beginning of May. We also attended the tribal plaque and flag-raising ceremony at the Capitol. Tribal leaders and Governor Polis gave speeches commemorating the occasion, and tribal members performed ceremonial dances and songs. Witnessing this ceremony—and gaining further understanding of Colorado’s imperfect history with its native peoples—was really special.


Spring 2019–Spring 2020

From the beginning of the project, the client team was enamored with the design direction and eager to have the benefit of enhanced navigation for users. While the novel coronavirus pandemic set in during the final installation phase, preventing many of the building’s normal users from getting to see the new system, Visitor Services and Legislative Affairs staff have shared how much of an improvement they’ve seen already, and how excited they are for the signs to be put to even greater use.

Late March–June 2019: Fabricator Interviews, Selection & Contracting  OCSC signs were installed. At the request of the Capitol staff, we put together a formal evaluation document for the fabricators bidding on Phase 1, interviewed final round picks, and met with an internal Project Manager. Capitol staff selected and worked directly with ADCON to initiate project setup. All teams met for review of package.

July–December 2019: Fabrication Oversight  We’ve been managing the beginning of the fabrication stage for Phase 1—reviewing shop drawings, samples, prototypes and mockups. Designs for custom maps of each floor of the Capitol and its grounds were completed.

January 2020: Installation Schedule Delays, Shop & Sample Reviews  After the holidays, we met with the internal project team to strategize. Due to delays in the approval processes of several elements, we had to push back the schedule for fabrication and installation to avoid the active legislative session; ADCON then shifted to installing signage on weekends only. We conducted a final review of the shop drawings and released them. Due to a printing technique misunderstanding, one new sample had to be created. Thankfully, it looked great, and the Capitol team approved us to move forward with the new color.

March–April 2020: Fabrication in a Coronavirus Lockdown  We began working from home due to a Stay-at-Home Order issued in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. The legislative session was adjourned early out of an abundance of caution, allowing us to move timelines up. ADCON completed most of the fabrication, painting and assembly of the sign components that they built in house, and the first signs were installed.

May 2020: Fabrication & Installation Scheduling  ADCON installed exterior, pole-mounted signs. The Phase 1 signage package began working its way through ADCON’s fabrication process, which included ordering materials; engaging with specialty sub-contractors such as stone suppliers, coin makers and glass cutters; creating additional samples; prototyping wheel-locking mechanisms and beginning fabrication of select sign types. We continued to coordinate with ADCON and the Capitol team. ADCON completed some field verification to prepare for install.

June 2020: Social Unrest Leads to Installation Stops & Starts  The Capitol building was extensively damaged during racial justice protests in the area, so the staff put exterior signage installation on hold. Interior signage installation proceeded, and free-standing, moveable signs were delivered to Capitol staff. We continued to coordinate via live video calls.


Summer 2020

With both interior and exterior elements, custom maps and icons and a unified visual language, the new system is both attractive and functional, intuitively leading visitors from one piece of information to the next with ease. “The final result is a beautifully designed, thoughtfully programmed wayfinding system that complements the space while minimizing the impact on the building and while maximizing visitors’ ease of navigation,” says Rosa. “It was a pleasure to work on a project like this,” adds Gregg. “And, to work with the team at the Capitol.”

July–August: Installation, Punch Walk & Photography  ADCON installed the remaining Phase 1 interior signs, then we conducted a punch walk with the client team. Since the building remains closed due to the pandemic, we all wore masks and social distanced while we looked at all of the installed permanent signs and placed the moveable, free-standing signs appropriately. Phase 1 is complete!’


Project Name: Colorado State Capitol Wayfinding
Client: State of Colorado
Location: Denver, CO
Open Date: August 2020
Project Area: 286,000 sq. ft.
Fabrication Budget: $310,000
Experiential Graphic Design: ArtHouse Design
Design Team: Marty Gregg, Beth Rosa, Zach Kotel, Anaïs Mares, Daisy Corso
Fabrication: ADCON Signs (signage), Boyd Sign Systems (plaques)
Photography: Zach Kotel/ArtHouse Design