Washington State Convention Center Offers a Warm Wayfinding Welcome

After 30 years of patchwork facility expansions and Frankensteined signage, wayfinding at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle needed a new vision. Michael Courtney Design created a friendly and cohesive “concierge” wayfinding program that elevates the guest experience for more than 400,000 annual visitors. The program greets and guides them with a warm welcome, a clean and consistent design language and flexible digital components.

In conjunction with the $21 million interior renovation master plan for the center, led by EHS Design, Michael Courtney Design was commissioned to complete a Wayfinding Master Plan and designed a new wayfinding system to guide, inform and enhance the experience for users of the facility.

Michael Courtney says his team uses the term “concierge” to describe the role of branding and wayfinding. “A good signage system greets, guides, informs and enhances the user experience, just like a good concierge in a hospitality setting.” Phase II of the project was implemented in April 2015, and Phase 3 is in the planning stages.

(The Washington State Convention Center is one of the project tours on tap at the 2016 SEGD Conference: Experience Seattle June 9-11! See the center and meet the designers of its wayfinding program! Register today!)

Out with the old

The 30-year-old wayfinding system at WSCC struggled to greet, guide and direct more than 400,000 guests each year. Built in a challenging urban location, the success of the original building led to three expansions, spreading across several city blocks and creating the largest meeting and event facility in Washington State.

During a series of updates, the design vision of the original program was lost, resulting in a confusing mix of design and directions powered by outdated technology and missing elements. Schedules at conference rooms used paper signs in cabinets, reminiscent of a 1970s high school cafeteria menu board, while the lack of floor-level indicators was disorienting to guests using eight different entrances to access four floors.

Elevating the guest experience

MCD’s goals for the wayfinding program were to develop an easy-to-understand, branded information system to help users navigate with confidence and comfort. They also needed to link the diverse spaces with a new system authentic to the existing and updated spaces and architecture. In short, their goal was to elevate the guest experience.

MCD’s approach included extensive research on the existing condition. Team members observed visitor behaviors, reactions and navigation patterns. With a better understanding of visitor’s needs, MCD designed a clear and concise wayfinding program that works in harmony with the function of the space and needs of the client.

The challenges were significant, says Fran Terry, MCD senior designer/project manager. The facility stretches across several city blocks, and was built and expanded in four separate time periods, each with different architectural styles and materials. Users enter the facility through eight separate entrances from multiple streets, levels and two garages. The convention center also shares its main lobby space with an office tower with no clear division between the two spaces.

“Visitors didn't realize these buildings were all one facility,” she explains. “Our challenge, along with the interior architectural renovation, was to make all of these disparate spaces feel as if they were one location—and to direct first-time users in and out of the numerous entrances and exits and to the correct meeting spaces.”

Welcoming signs

In total, more than 2,000 signs now direct visitors and identify rooms and spaces using a consistent, clear graphic language that connects with the audience and instills a sense of confidence in navigating the center. 

The overall design of the signage is clean and contemporary, using hospitality-grade materials and aligning with EHS Design’s interior architecture changes. The signage color palette includes warm brown wood, greens and blues and silver typography. To add to the contemporary feel, MCD chose a clean, modern typeface and designed the overhead signs with a thin profile.

The welcome begins in the main lobby, where MCD introduced a distinctive overhead landmark made up of custom patterns embedded into panels of 3form Varia Ecoresin, a translucent material with 40% pre-consumer recycled content, GreenGuard Indoor Quality Certified. The team created 16 color and pattern combinations featured in three rows of panels. Many of the color combinations and patterns (and additional patterns) were used throughout the rest of the signage as well.

MCD chose a simple materials palette. In addition to the 3form panels (which emit a soft glow when illuminated), they specified a wood veneer to match the quartered figured Makore specified by the architect on many of the new interior finishes.  Copy is in aluminum with a brush finish. Directional and room identification signs are made of a combination of the wood veneer as the base panel, with patterned 3form accents and, for larger overhead and wall signs, dimensional aluminum letters.

Digital technology is integrated in the form of 32-in. displays outside meeting rooms. The Sharp commercial-grade LCDs (with content by Four Winds Interactive) replace the old cafeteria-style menuboards and can be centrally updated by convention center staff. To integrate them with the overall signage program and architectural finishes, MCD specified design and mounting details on wood-veneer panels similar to the static signs.

Another digital layer will be implemented later in 2016—a huge circular bank of displays dubbed the “Ring of Fire” that will combine directional information with meeting-room specifics—serving as the center’s main information feed and directory.

With two of three phases complete, the wayfinding program is already considered a success, thanks to close collaboration among MCD, the convention center staff, EHS Design, fabricators and other collaborators.

Brad Kolodzaike, project manager for WSCC, says the wayfinding program has unified the facility in a way that helps the center staff and visitors. "The integration of digital signage with the traditional wayfinding system has allowed for increased flexibility by offering clients the best look for their event.  Overall, the facility has a more modern and attractive look with the signage upgrade which aligns with a diverse clientele ranging from the annual Flower & Garden show to our technology industry events.”

Courtney says the program meets the mission of a truly "concierge" hospitality wayfinding system. "The goal was to make the system friendly, seamless and clear," he notes. "I think we reached that goal."


Client: Washington State Convention Center

Location: Seattle

Open Date: April 2015 (Phase 2 completed)

Project Area: 307,700 sq. ft. and meeting rooms

Budget: $2.5 million

Design: Michael Courtney Design

Design Team: Michael Courtney (creative director), Fran Terry (senior designer, senior project manager)    

Collaborators: WSCC (Ed Barnes, vice president operations; Brad Kolodzaike, project manager); EHS Design (interior architecture master planning and upgrades); Square Root Design (design and SketchUp assistance on initial design concepts); The Great Detail Guy (bid package documentation)

Fabrication: Tube Art Group (prototypes, welcome landmarks in Phase 1); AGI (primary fabricator, Phase 2); 3form (resin material); Interior Environments (wood fabrication); Sharp (LCD displays)

Photos: Lara Swimmer

Find more articles on Wayfinding and other content in your areas of interest in SEGD’s Xplore Experiential Graphic Design index!

The Washington State Convention Center is one of the project tours on tap at the 2016 SEGD Conference: Experience Seattle June 9-11! See the center and meet the designers of its wayfinding program! Register today!

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