I’ve always been fascinated by signs. How they look, how they are made, the information they communicate, the good, the bad and the downright ugly.

A graduate of Northumbria University’s design for Industry, I’ve worked in the signage industry since 1989 and, as Director at Newcastle-based Picto, I work on signage and wayfinding projects all over the UK.

Image kindly supplied by Claire Calverley

Signs in society

During the last 30 years, I’ve witnessed many fascinating shifts in the wonderful world of signage and wayfinding – for example, the impact of desk top computers on the industry, the transformation of polytechnics into universities, and the introduction of the Disabilities Discrimination Act, which requires that our built environment is accessible to all.

I’ve seen hospitals moving away from standard-issue brown signs and being allowed to operate under their own brand, and then being taken back again under a new, blue NHS umbrella.

Then there was the advent of the National Lottery, and the quest to open cultural projects across the UK to mark the dawn of the new millennium.

More recently, I’ve been working on projects that focus on the role that the design of our spaces can play in improving the lives of those living with dementia.

Signs of our times

On March the 23rd this year, as the spread of the Coronavirus filled the news headlines, prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the start of lockdown measures, which are still very much in place at the time of writing.

As our landscape changes in response to those measures, my latest fascination is the part that signage is playing in the fight again the Coronavirus.

Evolutions in design

From the outset, the daily press briefings from Downing Street have incorporated signage to reinforce the Government’s key message of ‘Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’. The design of these signs has evolved over time.

Both the colours and typography changed almost daily in the early days – and we have seen time-sensitive adaptations too, for example – “Stay home this Easter”.

Social distancing and those measures being taken to allow us to do the limited things we’re able to do safely during the lockdown:

• go to the supermarket for essential items

• fill up with petrol in order to be able to travel to work or make essential journeys

• take one form of outdoor exercise a day

• attend medical appointments

All of these activities are, to a greater or lesser extent, being accompanied by new signs and graphic markings.

A focus on messaging

This signage is not about manufacturing, an industry which is mainly on shutdown. Instead, it’s all about the message. Paper laminates, hand-crafted signs fixed with Sellotape or Blu Tack, chalkboards, rolls of hazard tape — you name it as we’ve adapted to get vital messages up on display at speed.

“In the current climate, branded signage written by communications or marketing professionals sits along side rudimentary, hand-written notices prepared by frontline teams.”

“While brand identity, authority and quality and clarity of message are diminished, there is an urgency and purpose embedded in the notices. They may even be more effective at cutting through the noise and they stand out from the corporate suite of information to give direct and often hard-hitting instructions.” Dawn McGuigan | Strategic Communications Consultant

Creativity and kindness in action

On a national scale, there have been some truly lovely high-profile initiatives which include Damien Hirst’s rainbow artwork in support of the NHS, which is free for anyone to download. And Layers Design, who have put together a collection of 10 billboard posters – designed by big players like Pentagram – with proceeds from their use going to the NHS Charities Together Covid-19 appeal.

Our changing landscape

As lockdown continues, I’ve been collating as many examples of this new signage as I can get hold of as friends and contacts send me their contributions. And I’m posting them on my Instagram account @sarahs_notebook.

As the collection grows, I’ve started to categorise the signs we’re seeing into four headings – with some, of course, fitting into more than one category.

1. Key Message

2. Information

3. Instructions

4. Praise

“What’s fascinating about the signage that we’re seeing around us at the moment is how their tone manages to convey a wealth of emotions. We have key messages from GOV in the form of pithy, punchy triplets and couplets. Then we have information – with clear explanations and the hopeful optimism of updates to come. And instructions, which – when done with empathy, help to alleviate our fears about the consequences of getting the new ways of doing things (like shopping or hand washing) wrong. And finally, praise. Our windows demonstrate our gratitude through the glorious and smile-inducing medium of homemade rainbows – a perfect sign, if ever there was one, that this, too, shall pass.” Katherine Wildman | Creative Director at Haydn Grey

Looking to the Future

Of course, the one certainty we have is that things that before would have been set in stone – like dates and timelines – are all now very uncertain. Ours is a very day-by-day existence. But it occurs to me – what will this new world look like to those people who have been shielding. Those who haven’t been out at all since the start of the lockdown in March?

And, as lockdown measures begin to lift, will we start to see an influx of signs telling us that parts of our daily lives are “back to normal”?

Experience tells me that signs are quick to go up and slow to be taken down. Will the signs of these times, then become the ghost signs of our future?

Sarah Phillips | May 2020