Of Signs, Skyscrapers, and Software

I was looking for a book on data visualization. Having gone through Edward Tufte’s classics, I browsed the Tufts library catalog by “visualization”. The two keepers were only tangentially related, but I’ve learned that I sometimes attack problems too directly, so I checked out Signage and Wayfinding Design by Chris Calori and The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper by Kate Ascher. Both have involve service through the built environment. That is, unlike the social justice programs that many of my classmates engage in that serve interpersonally, these books see service conducted through the proxy of a created object. This model appeals to me because the object can serve many more people than I could personally interact with. The object endures to serve in the future, as opposed to the many charitable acts that have vanishingly immediate returns. That is, service through objects is more efficient.

In the case of signage, it is intellectual service. Wayfinding provides empowering knowledge much the way that software can (should). Signage also serves a secondary placemaking role. Signs not only describe the built environment; they are part of it; they should embody emotions, preferring to lend character to its environment over abstract minimalism. Therefore, signs walk the same tightrope that infographics do, between information clarity and contextual aesthetics.

Chris Calori leaves no stone unturned as she documents the full process of signage production. On one hand, it is ruthlessly physical, with details such as mounting, dimensions, lighting, materials, and finishes to be specified prior to fabrication. Much of the waterfall-like process is principled on preventing the full construction of a faulty signage program, by using detailed plans, miniatures, prototypes, and renderings. On the other hand, signage is a great example of the divide between art and design. Art attempts to communicate non-obvious truths through subtety that takes time to absorb. Signage (and design) is just the opposite: communicate rather mundane information quickly and unambiguously. Calori defines the pyramid model of signage, which encompasses the information content, the graphics, and the hardware. Design subdivides into the abstract information, concerned with hierarchies and placement, and graphics, concerned with symbols, diagrams, and typefaces. The book thoroughly addresses each of these, as well as the regulatory and legal concerns one is likely to encounter along the way. It also includes thirty-two pages of color photographs of finished signage programs, which are not to be missed.

As for The Heights, the book itself is intellectual service. Printed in full color, it’s a surprisingly detailed-yet-accessible look at the engineering and planning behind tall buildings. Want to know about cranes, air handlers, curtain walls, elevator safety, green roofs, fire sprinklers, floor plates, pile drivers, and window washers? It’s all there, with helpful illustrations. Section titles are printed in a 3D extruded typeface that resembles a building (for once, a justified use case) and the table of contents is done delightfully as an elevator directory, reading from bottom to top. Wayfinding is not mentioned in the text, but its principles are applied to the presentation itself.

Of course, the very act of creating a well-designed skyscraper contributes tremendously to the built environment. Such a building can provide living and working space for thousands of people for a century. Design decisions can become crucially important or confining decades after they were made. Unlike Calori’s laser-focus, the skyscrapers involve thousands of people of diverse education and wealth backgrounds, from construction workers to financiers, tenants to janitors. Construction on this scale is an act with huge societal ramifications. Engineering is not neutral, politically, socially, or ethically.

But the authors are undaunted. They strive to make objects, whether signs or skyscrapers, that make life more enjoyable, more comprehensible, and more fair for all who come into contact with them. Through technical competence, goal-oriented design, hard work, and luck, objects large and small come to enrich our lives. What kind of object do you want to make?

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