Vienna International Airport Wayfinding

Graphic Departure

At Vienna International Airport, Ruedi Baur’s transparent wayfinding system marries minimalist design and poetic touches. 

In some ways, airports are quintessential non-places. With their long corridors, labyrinthine layouts, and cacophonous soundtrack of arrivals/departures and passengers speaking multiple languages, it’s easy to forget exactly where you are. Sometimes the architecture is a clue. Other times, local artwork gives a sense of place.

Rarely is an airport wayfinding system so unique as to indicate “You are Here.”

At the new Vienna International Airport Skylink terminal (“Check-in 3”), Paris-based Intégral Ruedi Baur sought to create a contemporary signage and wayfinding program that would integrate well with the black-and-white architecture, provide the right information at the right time, and mark the entrance to the central European hub with a bit of poetry and a unique sense of place.

“The airport is not just an international territory, it’s also an entrance to a territory, so the aesthetic of the signage has to connect with the aesthetic of the country,” explains Baur. “Early on in the project, we spoke about transparency and lucidity and about how to elevate the sign system. That was our first intention.”

The design team was able to work with architects at P.arc Itten Brechbuhl Baumschlager Eberle from project launch in 2004, giving them the opportunity to position signage only and exactly where needed; ensure seamless installation on walls, floors and ceilings; and develop an aesthetic that complements rather than competes with the architecture.

Translucency and lucidity

One challenge for Intégral Ruedi Baur was designing a new system that would be as efficient as the yellow signage in the existing terminal without using yellow. Instead of using bright colors, the designers chose a black and white signage system that mimics the minimalist architecture.

“It would have been nearly violent for us to introduce color in that environment,” explains Eva Kubinyi, graphics project manager. “We also knew that life would come into the airport—in the form of ads, shops, and restaurants—and that those elements would bring in color. We thought it would be better not to shout louder than they did.”

The black-and-white system also allowed the introduction of a simple wayfinding logic: follow the white signs through the terminal until you find the black signs, at the gates and beyond.

The idea driving the sign design was to create an effect of light and suspension, like an airplane at liftoff. The Intégral team achieved this subtly by adding texture to the vinyl sign lettering, creating a blurred effect intended as a soft counterpoint to the potential coldness of the terminal’s high-contrast architecture.

Wall-hung and ceiling-mounted signage is primarily digitally printed vinyl on glass panels. Signs leading passengers to their gates are white with transparent vinyl lettering digitally printed using rasterized black ink that lends an illusion of motion to the typography.

“We wanted to personalize the sign system while keeping it functional in terms of information and legibility,” says Kubinyi. “From a distance, you don’t see the rasterization of the letters. Then when you look closely, it’s a surprise.”

The glass panels are also silkscreened to create a tapered effect of opacity, with pixelated dots gradating from heavily condensed at the top to more loosely condensed in the middle and then to transparent on the bottom. The opaque-glass effect at the top of the sign also conceals the technical equipment and internal LED illumination.

Once passengers are at their gates, white signage transitions to black. There and in the baggage claim area, black signs with white vinyl lettering feature black pixelated dots on the glass panels transitioning from heavy at the top to transparent at the bottom. The black signs are externally rather than internally illuminated. To achieve the right effect, the designers worked with Susanna Fritscher—an Austrian artist who specializes in creating visual aspects of appearing and disappearing—and then went through multiple rounds of prototyping.

Reimagining the typical airport arrivals monitor, the Intégral team created a 40- by 4.5- meter display that consists of white LED panels behind existing glass walls, with a white film on the glass adding a translucent effect. The left side of the wall displays flights that have already landed, while the right side shows flights en route. The design team intended flights to be shown at the top of the display when they depart, then gradually “descend” to a lower part of the display before “landing” at the bottom left of the display when they arrive at the terminal.  

Typography and pictograms

To help create a sense of place, Baur used Fedra Sans typeface—designed by Peter Bil’ak, a Dutch typographer with Slovakian roots—that is optimized for central European languages, complete with all of the accent marks. Bil’ak originally designed Fedra—which actually translates to “bright”—for another project he had worked on with Baur that was ultimately cancelled. Baur describes it as “modern, but a little bit free and exciting for the eyes, with the ‘e’ on a diagonal—a little gesture that is central European in flavor and expression.”

The typography is used to its fullest on a 12-meter-long “Welcome to Vienna” graphic that displays the phrase in 30 different languages. It is also used to slightly blurred effect in the oversized 1.5-meter-high white vinyl gate letters that appear on the building’s glass front.

The Baur team designed a system of 150 pictograms that resemble internationally familiar symbols, but complement Fedra in spirit. “I don’t think you need to have the same pictograms from airport to airport,” Baur insists. “You can have a central recognizable element but change it, play with it a bit so that all the world doesn’t look similar.”

The pictograms appear in digitally printed black vinyl on the glass panels, with a dark blue square on the back side of the glass that produces a shadow effect.

Challenges

As with any signage project that is eight years in the making, there are bound to be some bumps in the road. The airport management team changed over twice, the project was halted midway for architectural reasons, and the signage had to be revised four years into the project, then redone again six months before the terminal opened when the airport needed a way to connect the old terminal with the new one.

And as in most projects, some beloved design ideas fell to the cutting-room floor. Several elements that Intégral Ruedi Baur designed to add regional flavor were omitted at the last minute, including a welcome wall with Austrian colloquialisms and walls with poetry by a noted Austrian poet planned for corridors throughout the terminal.

Some visitors, particularly visually impaired travelers, have argued that the subtle visual effects Baur’s team created for the signs hinder their legibility. Kubinyi says last-minute changes to the architecture, specifically cutting half of the ceiling lighting, resulted in some signs not being as well-lit as they should be. The airport management team is currently working to resolve the issues, and the design team has proposed ways to fix the problems.

For the LED arrivals display, airport management decided to only show flights as they arrive at the airport rather than the more fun graphic element of showing flights en route and as they descend.

Baur says that while the changes are frustrating, he is pleased with the overall system.  “I’m very happy that we did something a little bit complex, and in the end, the subtraction of elements is not obvious to people—they don’t know what they’re missing.”

--By Jenny Reising, eg magazine No. 03, 2012  

VIENNA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT WAYFINDING SYSTEM

Client:  Flughafen Wien AG (Vienna International Airport)

Budget:  3,5 Mio € (static signage), 2 Mio € (dynamic signage/LED)

Project Area:  150,000m2

Opened:  June 2012

Design:  Intégral Ruedi Baur Paris & Zurich

Design Team:  Ruedi Baur art direction, Eva Kubinyi project manager, graphics, Simon Burkart, project manager, 3D design, Christina Poth, Axel Steinberger, Wanja Ledowski, Maria Roszkowska, Gabriela Wolfertz, David Esser pictograms

Fabrication:  Forster Verkehrs- und Werbetechnik GmbH (static media), Annax GmbH (LED), Fill Metallbau GmbH (display cases/lightboxes)

Architects:  P.arc Itten Brechbühl Baumschlager Eberle

Photos:  © Intégral Ruedi Baur, Andreas Körner

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