Friday, June 13, 2008

Signage Interview - Rick Smits of neXt Wayfinding + Design

Recently I received a comment from Rick Smits on my Westbrook Corporate Center post, where he indicated that he was involved in the design the signage of Westbrook, as well as Union Station.

I asked Mr. Smits for an interview and he was kind enough to consent to one. It turns out his company does not do a lot of negative space signage, but I was fascinated to learn about the concept of wayfinding, which I had never heard of before.

I first asked Mr. Smits to provide some biographical info.

My name is Rick Smits. I'm the senior graphic designer and project manager at neXt wayfinding + design in Chicago. NeXt is part of the Epstein family of companies which provides architecture, engineering, interior design and graphic design services. I’ve been with neXt/Epstein since 2000. Prior to this I worked for Comcorp, a graphic design firm that Epstein bought-out.

I graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a BA in graphic design, but it wasn’t until I entered the work force that I really became exposed to environmental graphic design (EGD), signage design and wayfinding. I was mentored by a designer who had previously worked for a signage company and this is when my love for EGD started. Before that, I never paid much attention to signs, but as I began my career and spent hours and hours on a printed design – only to have someone look at it for 4 seconds and then dump it – I came to see not only the beauty in signs, but also the longevity which seemed to make the design effort more worthwhile.

I am a professional member of the Society of Environmental Graphic Design (SEGD) and I would encourage anyone who is interested in this topic to visit their website at to learn more.


Splotchy: I see that your company, neXt wayfinding + design, is primarily focused on designing signage for a variety of environments. You mentioned that you had designed the signage for both Union Station and the Westbrook Corporate Center. How would you describe what you do on a daily basis? What is the nature of your work, and what tools do you use to accomplish it?

Rick Smits: We are usually hired by a client to help their users make sense of and navigate a complex environment such as a hospital, an airport or a large corporate or university campus. This process is known as wayfinding. Wayfinding will use many different visual clues to help someone navigate a space. From wall and carpet color that create memorable landmarks, (look for the red wall and turn left) to signage that directs, identifies and informs.

Most of my day involves reviewing drawings and architectural plans; locating the signs on these plans and figuring out what the signs should say. Once this is determined, we can begin the design process. Even though my title is Sr. Designer, the nature of most EGD projects is more planning, programming, research and specification writing than actual design. This is probably the biggest shock to print or web designers who think that they want to try to get involved with an EGD project. To create a good sign design, you have to not only understand the principles of design and layout, you also need to understand materials and the limitations of the fabrication process.

The most important tools we use are Adobe Illustrator with a separate plug-in called CADTools and Filemaker Pro. We use Illustrator to create the designs and do the sign location plans. The CADTools plugin allows us to create technical drawings in scale so that we know how things will fit together. Filemaker Pro is a database tool that we use to manage the message schedule. The message schedule contains all the information that identifies the kind of sign; it’s specific location number on the plan and the actual message that the sign contains. In a large project like McCormick Place this database will contain thousands of signs.

Splotchy: Can you go a little into the logistics of how your role fit into the Union Station and Westbrook Corporate Center projects? You mentioned a "building manager" and a "fabricator". I am interested in the process whereby an idea becomes a sign -- what is the process? In your experience, is the process usually the same?

The client contact for us is often a facilities person or a building manager who is familiar with the ins and outs of the building or site. A typical EGD job lasts about a year and goes through five phases. Some really large EGD projects can last 3 – 6 years.

Phase 1: Planning & Analysis – this is when we do a lot of research about the client and their objectives for a new signage and wayfinding system. We will also begin locating where signs will be placed and what they will say.

Phase 2: Schematic Design – Based on the analysis and objectives derived from phase 1, we can begin to explore how different sign designs will solve the client’s problems while at the same time fitting with the architectural style of the building or site. Usually we will show three different concepts for the client to select from.

Phase 3: Design Development – The client will often select portions of the different schematic concepts presented to them and ask us to combine them into one design idea. Once this is complete we will then apply this design to all the different types of signs that will be used in the building so that everything looks like a cohesive family.

Phase 4: Contract Documents – This is when we go into more detail on how the signs are actually made – What material is it? What finish does it have? How is it illuminated? How is it assembled? Etc. The idea is that once these “design intent” drawings are complete, they can be sent out to be competitively bid by different fabricators to actually make and install the sign.

Phase 5: Construction Administration – After the sign drawings have been bid and a fabricator selected, we will manage the fabrication process by reviewing and approving the fabricator’s submittals such as materials, finishes, colors and shop drawings that show how they propose to make the signs. Shop drawings differ from our design drawings because the show the real nuts and bolts of how the fabricator plans on making the sign. This is because there is always more than one way to make something and different fabricators have different methods that they are comfortable using. Our reviews are to make sure that the design intent does not get lost or misinterpreted in the fabrication process.

Splotchy: How long have you been in the sign business?

Rick Smits: I graduated from Columbia College in 1994. I've been in the business ever since.

Splotchy: How many signs have you designed?

Rick Smits: Probably hundreds, but keep in mind that most of our jobs are interior based for large complex facilities like hospitals, airports or convention centers. These facilities require anywhere from 30-70 different types of signs each.

Splotchy: How many of the signs you have designed have utilized negative space (i.e., are halo-lit)?

Rick Smits: Not a lot. Of all the different signs mentioned above, only a handful are illuminated and then of these illuminated signs only a small percentage may call for halo-lit illumination.

Splotchy: What percentage of signs designed by your firm are halo-lit?

Rick Smits: Strictly speaking it'd be less than 1%. We always try to design objectively instead of subjectively. Simply put, we need to design what will meet the clients needs and the project's objective, instead of just what we think will look cool – as Louis Sullivan said, "form follows function." Sometimes that means halo-lit signage is the best solution and sometimes that means that something else will be more effective.

Splotchy: Have you worked in a variety of markets, or are you largely focused in the Chicago area?

Rick Smits: Almost all of our work is done in the Midwest and specifically the Chicagoland area. I would say that 99% of our work has been in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin. At one point we had a satellite office in Albuquerque and did some work in the Southwest.

Splotchy: Besides Union Station and the Westbrook Corporate Center, what other some other instances of halo-lit signage have you been involved with around Chicago?

Rick Smits: We currently have a couple on the drawing boards. One is for the 353 N. Clark building currently being built at Clark & Kinzie. This building shares a driveway with the Westin Hotel and we will be providing identification and direction to the hotel. It's slated to go on a relatively low landscape wall. Also on the boards is a retail center in Lincolnshire, where all the tenants would use a halo-lit identification standard. Unfortunately this project probably won't be realized.

As for finished projects, there's large halo-lit letters that identify Midway airport. The letters are on a portion of the building made to look like a wing and is visible when traveling south on Cicero Ave. The University of Chicago Comer Children's Hospital uses a combination of front and halo-lit illumination on letters and a huge 30' logo. You can see the sign on our website. The sign is purple during the day but illuminates white at night with a purple halo. Unfortunately the white overpowers the purple and the effect is nearly lost.


A big thank you to Rick Smits in taking the time to provide thoughtful answers to my questions!


Unknown said...

Interesting interview...Thanks for posting.

Some Guy said...

Very cool! Thanks to Rick for taking the time to answer these questions. The phases for your work are very similar to the phases of architectural design. I guess that makes sense.