|Jeff Frank is a lead designer with Corbin Design in Traverse City, Mich. The company’s motto is “People get lost. We fix that.”
Cantigny engaged Corbin to develop a wayfinding strategy and signage system for the park. Some of the new signs were installed this fall, with more to come next spring.
Jeff’s expertise in environmental graphic design and signage fabrication spans 30 years. His creative work for Corbin, going on 16 years, includes city wayfinding programs for Milwaukee, and trail programs for Lake County, Illinois, and Mammoth Lake, California. Early in his career, Jeff spent five years as staff signage designer for the Lincoln Park Zoo. Also prior to Corbin, he developed wayfinding and signage programs for large scale venues such as the Los Angeles Federal Courthouse, Chicago’s Union Station, Dubai International Airport and China’s International School of Beijing.
Born in Chicago and raised in Crestwood, Jeff knew Cantigny Park well before his involvement with Project New Leaf. His brother lives in Wheaton.
As this edition of “5 Questions” reveals, thoughtful wayfinding is critically important to how Cantigny visitors experience the park. The signage work by Jeff and his Corbin colleagues aims to enhance those experiences for many years to come.
Q: From a navigation or wayfinding standpoint, what was your impression of Cantigny when you took on this assignment?
A: You asked me to be candid so I will be. Cantigny Park was a gem with an out-of-date sign system and no formal wayfinding strategy. As a wayfinding professional who had visited the park numerous times in my personal life, I was always struck by the lack of directional information between the three main landmarks—the Visitors Center, First Division Museum and McCormick House. Because there was not always a straight line of sight between the buildings, a perception existed that they were far away from each other. Also complicating the experience was the density of gardens and winding paths that create a sense that the park is much larger and more complicated than it is. The lack of wayfinding may have been partially intentional—it allowed visitors to “get lost” in the beauty of the gardens. But it created navigational challenges. We tried to develop a wayfinding plan that was sensitive to the history and environment while reflecting what modern visitors are expecting at a premier historic site.
Q: What challenges did Cantigny present from a wayfinding standpoint? Was ours a complex project?
A: Our greatest challenge was living up to the extraordinary design already displayed on the grounds, in Project New Leaf, and at the First Division Museum. The bar was set high and we needed to create a subtle wayfinding system that helps people navigate the park without interfering with the landscape or the experience. We follow a design philosophy that park and trail wayfinding programs should be apparent when you need them and transparent when you don’t.
Another major challenge we faced was merging the ideas of directing visitors and encouraging exploration. In the case of Cantigny Park, the fastest or most direct route from one destination to the next is not always the goal. By installing pedestrian map kiosks around the park, folks can orient themselves and have a better understanding of the grounds—where they are and what is around them. The main wayfinding system connects the Visitors Center, McCormick House and First Division Museum. Within this core routing, we’ve layered in directional information so people can wander off and signs along their route serve as breadcrumbs to discover other attractions.
The other key wayfinding issue we addressed was probably the one that will have the biggest impact on visitors. We needed a way to effectively communicate where the restrooms are located. By using the universal symbol for restrooms, we’ve identified each destination with a restroom on both the directional signs and maps. In addition, we’ve also added walking distance in minutes on the directional signs, to help visitors plan their time.
Q: Describe the role of color in the system you designed for Cantigny.
A: Color plays an important role in any sign program. We often want our programs to be bold enough to stand out in an environment. However, at Cantigny, we needed to strike a delicate balance between what is prominent enough to be easily found and subtle enough to not disrupt the experience. Ultimately, we selected a color palette that was familiar to the environment and strong enough to be useful in direction giving. The main color is a metallic bronze similar to the existing light poles. The color is warm and blends well with the environment but has enough visual impact so that signs are easy to find if you are looking for them. The standard color for the majority of the destinations is a complementing medium taupe. This has the right contrast with the white letters to support legibility in low light conditions like dusk, dawn or overcast days.
We used pops of color to identify the landmark destinations, McCormick House and the First Division Museum (FDM), and to help them stand out on signage. A cream color was selected for McCormick House, giving an intuitive connection to the building facade. For the FDM, we chose a dark red to convey its connection to the French poppies that are prominent in the museum and the First Division insignia.
Q: Too many signs vs. too few . . . How did you find the right balance?
A: Another philosophy of ours is “fewer, better signs.” We want the least number of signs to do the bulk of the work and avoid cluttering the environment. That’s why this process has taken a year. We conducted a thorough analysis of the grounds, evaluating pedestrian circulation paths, to develop a wayfinding master plan. By taking the time to plan, we’re taking a proactive approach to wayfinding rather than a reactive approach. We’ve all seen this before – there’s a destination that people need help finding, so a sign with an arrow is added at the nearest intersection. When people still have a problem finding the location, a bigger sign with a larger arrow is added. A proper wayfinding plan anticipates what visitors need at each decision point and provides relevant information without overload.
Visitors entering the park need an overview, so they can set up a picture of the park in their mind’s eye. Next, people will generally select “waypoints” when they set out for their main objective. For example, the starting point is always key because it is most often the ending point. “Where did we park? I need to create a route that will get me back to my car.” The subsequent waypoints may be the Visitors Center, Tank Park and FDM. We’ve purposely located signs at key decision points to connect these destinations. Our goal is that you find your way effortlessly around the park to destinations without even noticing that the signs played a part. Information is just there when you need it.
Q: Designing the signs is one thing, making them is another. How involved are you with South Water Signs, the fabricator? Have you worked with them on other projects?
A: A great fabricator can make or break a wayfinding system. If the signs are not easy to maintain, not built to last or are unsafe, the project is not successful. We did a lot of research when selecting the materials, finishes and components for the Cantigny signage. Our specifications made sure that the selected fabricator would be held to a high standard. We were very pleased to hear that South Water Signs [in Elmhurst] was selected. They have a great reputation and bring a long history of manufacturing and installation experience to the project.