Seattle Children's Research Institute Neighborhood Visibility Project

Retro Rx

NBBJ Studio 07 prescribes an unexpected medium to draw attention to the work of a pediatric research facility.

At Seattle Children’s Research Institute, one of the top five pediatric research centers in the U.S., hundreds of scientists and researchers work to find new cures, develop better treatments, and improve outcomes for sick children. Yet the public is mostly unaware of its presence in downtown Seattle.

For years, SCRI has tried to increase its visibility using the storefront windows of its building, which spans more than half a block in a somewhat lackluster stretch of urban streetscape. Traditional solutions such as window graphics and posters fell flat.  

“Telling our story and representing what we do in our physical environment is something we’ve struggled with for years,” says Victoria Cleator, SCRI’s senior director of research. In this case, telling SCRI’s story in a succinct and exciting way was complicated by the fact that most people who view the storefront are passing by in cars. So the messaging needed to be read and understood quickly, from 20 feet away.

Bigger fish

NBBJ Studio 07 immediately saw an even bigger opportunity than just the storefront displays. “Not only could we use the window space to tell SCRI’s research story, but there was a fantastic chance to invigorate the surrounding city block for the neighborhood and passersby,” says Eric LeVine, NBBJ principal.

LeVine’s team was familiar with the SCRI brand, having developed wayfinding and branded environments at various research, office, and lab facilities downtown as well as Seattle Children’s Hospital.

As the team began exploring options for the storefront, initial rounds focused on “typical printed graphics stuck to windows—basically just making the storefront a billboard,” says LeVine. “We decided they didn’t have any impact. In fact, they were almost a detriment to the streetscape because they were blocking the windows.”

The team also considered an art installation with large images from SCRI’s research, such as cells and DNA. “While this was interesting and certainly representative,” recalls Cleator, “We didn’t feel it would deliver the message of what we do quickly enough for how a typical viewer would experience it.”

Literally the night before their presentation to SCRI, LeVine and lead designer Robert Murray were still struggling to find a solution that would both tell the research story and “give back” to the neighborhood. With 150 linear feet of storefront to cover, recalls LeVine, “There had to be a way to make SCRI more visible and also create some kind of artistic intervention.”

Fresh ideas daily

Seattle has a distinct neon heritage. The Elephant Car Wash, Pike Place Market, the P-I Globe, and the Bardahl sign on 15th Avenue NW are just a few of the neon treasures the city has to offer. What if, thought LeVine and Murray, they borrowed the familiar (and unabashedly commercial) vernacular of vintage neon signs?

“Rob and I said, ‘How can we shake this thing up?’ Shock them with something they’ve never seen before?” It was a risky proposition for a client presentation, but the pair decided their eight-year relationship with Cleator and SCRI was such that they would be open to a novel approach. So they prepared some preliminary drawings showing neon-rendered SCRI slogans that would hang in the storefront windows from chains, much like neon signs in a restaurant or bar.

Cleator and her colleagues jumped on the idea right away, game to try a fresh way of presenting the SCRI brand and story.

Up in lights

NBBJ teamed with Copacino+Fujikado, SCRI’s advertising agency, to create a series of slogans that would encapsulate the research mission and brand in a fun and offbeat way. The phrases are short, sweet, and unexpected, and the brilliant neon colors help catch the eyes of passersby.

“Gene Repair,” set against the backdrop of a large wrench, alludes to neon signs advertising old auto body shops as well as the important work that SCRI does. “Fresh Ideas Daily” features a large fish, a nod to Pike Street Market and the fact that SCRI frequently uses fish in its research on tumor growth. “Breakthroughs Happening Here” and “No Radiation. No Cancer. No Chemo,” make reference to the vintage neon hotel signs found on Seattle’s Highway 99, as well as SCRI’s work to find alternatives to traditional cancer treatments. And signs that say “Welcome to Hope,” “Welcome to Care,” and “Welcome to Cure” are a direct brand reference to SCRI’s mission statement.

Tube Art Group (Seattle), which has been bending neon since 1946, came on board to fabricate the signs. They built a six-foot-deep cavity inside each of the nine storefront windows, creating window boxes for the neon jewels. Fitting the traditional aluminum cabinets with exposed neon tubing inside those boxes was the most challenging aspect of the project, says Brian Hopkins, Tube Art’s vice president of business development. Because NBBJ designed the signs as stand-alone, UL-listed fixtures—each complete with it own electrical cord and dedicated outlet—permitting wasn’t an issue in the project, he adds.

“We wanted to be very authentic with these signs, and we relied on Tube Art’s expertise,” explains LeVine. “They have some very experienced craftsmen in their shop who were really into the project because it’s so old-school.

“This project was definitely not about using the latest technology, but using the old technology and crafting it perfectly.”

Humor wins

NBBJ and SCRI knew that using humor to tell a very serious story required a light hand. So the slogans were carefully vetted to ensure they were positive, not too flip or edgy, and on-brand.  

Cleator says the response has been consistently positive, from passersby who often do double-takes when they see the signs to employees, who love the bright and artful interventions. NBBJ also created neon signs for the building’s lobby. Cleator hopes the signs will become iconic to the neighborhood, adding to Seattle’s neon legacy and strengthening SCRI’s as well.

LeVine and his team are helping with the legacy part. Their intent when designing the signs as stand-alone fixtures was that once they have completed their turn in the storefront windows, they can be taken down and sold as memorabilia (or given to donors), raising funds to help offset their cost and continuing to spread the good word about SCRI’s good work.

--By Pat Matson Knapp, eg magazine No. 10, 2014


Client:  Seattle Children’s Research Institute

Location:  Seattle

Budget:  $100,000

Project Area:  150 linear feet of storefront, plus two remote installations

Open Date:  July 2013

Design:  NBBJ Studio 07

Design Team:  Eric LeVine (principal in charge); Robert Murray (lead designer); Elliott Rupe, Amanda Seever (designers)

Fabrication:  Tube Art Group

Consultants:  Copacino+Fujikado (advertising agency)

Photos:  Robert Murray, Sean Airhart/NBBJ


Jury comments

“A fresh use of neon with clever dialogue that draws your eye to the first-floor storefront. It makes external conversations. A light-hearted look at a heavy subject. Wages a crusade about the human condition.”

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