Ralston & Bau’s wayfinding system for a Norwegian office building takes inspiration from the underground signage systems of London, Paris, and New York.
The new 5,000m2 Storehagen Atrium building in Førde, Norway, houses offices of the national lottery system, the regional cultural department, three banks, and several other commercial and government institutions. Førde, a city of just 11,000, has aspirations to become a thriving metropolis, and the design team of Ralston & Bau (Dale, Norway) recognized that a new wayfinding system could help support those ambitions.
Local developers believe Storehagen Atrium will be an important hub for Førde as it plans for future growth and in fact, it is the first of several new buildings, including a regional art museum. So with a nod to the city’s forward thinking and a touch of humor, Ralston & Bau created a wayfinding system inspired by the simplicity and clarity of underground signage systems in London, Paris, and New York.
Strong and equal
The client—the building council made up of tenant representatives—wanted an integrated signage system that is easy to understand, easy to change, and cost effective.
With a budget of just NOK 200.638 (about $35,000 U.S.), Ralston & Bau’s challenge was to create a strong system that would recognize the individual tenants—some with very strong brands themselves—but in a cohesive and “democratic” way, says Birgitta Ralston, principal.
“The building was being built as we got involved, so we wanted to add a visual aspect that was simple, but valorized the architecture,” she explains. At the same time, “We wanted to visualize all of the institutions with the same importance. In Norway, equality is an important rule of living, and something we keep in mind at all times.”
To keep the system low-cost, Ralston & Bau optimized bold colors and minimized materials by using the building itself as support for vinyl graphics.
The system is based on a set of colored bands much like the lines on a typical subway map. Each colored band represents one of the building’s five levels. Visitors get their first glimpse of the system in vertical format on the building’s glass facade: a 12-meter-high translucent vinyl graphic that introduces the color bands and pairs them with the logomarks of building tenants.
Inside the atrium lobby, the “map” is repeated on a wall near the elevator banks, indicating the locations of tenants. In open stairwells and inside elevators, the map is simplified and flipped on its side, with vinyl color bands appearing horizontally with inset floor numbers. The team also created signs for the four entrances to each floor, as well as more than 200 individual office signs.
Ralston says the project’s major challenge—beyond the tight budget—was balancing the needs of the tenants. “Each one of them had a specific point of view and a personal opinion on the design,” she recalls. “During the process, we coordinated closely with representatives of each institution to ensure we considered their needs, and were a constant partner in all questions.”
Ralston & Bau’s solution also needed to incorporate universal design principles that would make the building accessible to all, including those with visual impairments.
In Norway, there are national recommendations to make public building signage accessible to people with visual impairments. After 2019, all public buildings will be required to meet the needs of blind and visually impaired persons.
Color-coding, high contrast, and uniform placement of striping and text all contribute to the system’s ease of use. The team assigned color families to each floor, with multiple tenants on the floor assigned shades of the same color. White text is reversed out of the color bands
Placement of text also subtly reinforces navigation, adds Ralston. On stairwell signage, for example, text for offices below the floor where the sign appears is always on the down/left side of the diagram, while text associated with higher floors always appears on the top/right.
Floor entrance signs, immediately visible once visitors exit stairwells or elevators, are also color-coded and add visual punch to the building’s subdued materials palette. Colored stripes corresponding to each floor are stacked vertically and integrated with stone walls, with the current floor marker expanding to a larger flag that incorporates the office name and logo.
Ove Mjåtveit, project leader for the Storehagen Atrium Tenants Council, says his group got what it was looking for: “Bespoke signage that embodied forward thinking, as well as expressing the safe and secure values that our institutions represent.”
They also got a colorful, clear, and cost-effective system that makes the building easy to navigate and meets the needs of individual tenants—while nurturing a vibrant and growing hub.
--By Pat Matson Knapp, segdDESIGN No. 32, 2011
Location: Førde, Norway
Clients: Norwegian Gaming and Foundation Authority, Sogn og Fjordane County, The Norwegian Directorate for Children, Youth and Family Affairs, Konfliktrådet, Pasient- og Brukarombodet, DnB NOR, Sparebank 1, Warren Bank
Design: Ralston & Bau
Design Team: Birgitta Ralston (creative director); Dana Brauer (designer); Jack Hamon, Helena Goznikar (design interns)
Construction and Signage Installation: FluorLux
Fabrication/Suppliers: Arlon, Orafal (vinyl film)
Photos: Ralston & Bau