Seeing the (Sustainable) Signs

lobby In February of last year, my company completed an extensive office addition. In an effort to show our commitment to sustainable building, the addition is LEED Certified. Without going into too much detail, green buildings are certified to different degrees (Platinum, Gold, and so forth) based on a standardized point system. One of the categories where you can garner points is through innovation and it was decided that we could create our own “education credit” by installing an internal system of signs that would make employees and visitors aware of the ways in which the building was energy efficient. As designer, it was my task to create this signage system. I thought it would be of value to share the process for putting together this system.

Step one: Game Plans and Field Trips.

Ultimately, I would be doing the whole of the design work for the signage system, but for information gathering and copy writing we assembled a team which consisted of an in-house architect who is the company LEED specialist, the marketing director, marketing assistant and myself. We had a kickoff meeting to discuss the logistics of the project, wherein the aforementioned architect explained why we were implementing the signage system as well as giving an overview of what green building techniques we had implemented.

The work flow for the project would be as follows: architect provides key green topics (i.e. “alternative transportation” or “water savings”) and explains how we garnered points in that arena, the marketing director would massage this content into more “user friendly” bullets, and I would take care of layout.

Next step: Field trip! The marketing assistant and I, armed with a camera and a thirst for sustainable building knowledge, headed out of the office for an afternoon to visit some “green sites” in the area for research. Stop one was Pittsburgh’s hub for all things sustainable, Phipps Conservancy and Botanical Gardens. Though reference signage there was limited, the trip proved an excellent opportunity to snap off a ton of photos that could later be used as green stock photography and ultimately I think the environment got us in a little bit of an eco-conscious mind set. (As a bonus, the Chiluly Glass exhibit was going on at the time).

Stop two was at Pittsburgh’s REI, where they had a signage system in place in the similar vein of what I was imagining ours would be. They also had maps at store’s entrance to help visitors locate the signs and which also elaborated on the green features of the building. Seeing the sign sizes, style and application was incredibly useful at the onset of this project.

Step Two: Options.

The key to doing creatively satisfying in-house work relies on your ability to provide multiple options for project directions and that each direction is equally appealing to you, the designer. Give your boss (read: client) two options, one you love and one you think will suffice, and he or she will always pick the latter. Give them two options you’d love to pursue and happily design-away!

That being said, I came up with two approaches for the signage system: the first was an icon driven set, where each “key green topic” would have an associated icon to represent the area where environmental savings were achieved. For example, I drew up a gas pump icon to accompany the sign that stated we had created preferred parking spots for low-emitting vehicles and carpools. This system would have ultimately been very “vector-y.”

The second concept was to utilize the aforementioned green stock photography and try to “bring some green indoors.” This photography driven approach was the one that was chosen based on a mockup of each sign style that I sent through the approval channels.

Step Three: Design, Research, and Design.

I would be designing 15 signs, 14 of which represented the key green features and one larger lobby sign to introduce visitors to the signage system. I wanted to create a flexible template so that the main building signs would clearly be a system, but they would not be identical. I decided upon the components that would be included: Title –the area in which we’d done something energy efficient (ex. “Water Savings”), Body – which would consist of one to three bullet points outlining what we specifically did in that area, Fact – which would be an energy efficiency or otherwise green fact that related to the area that the sign referenced (This was an effort to “bring the idea home” with something relatable to the amount of energy we were able to save), and lastly the company logo would be included on every sign in an effort to further brand our physical space.

I came up with three templates that involved the green stock photography and a semi-transparent green content area with the stock photo showing through fully on either the right side, left side, or bottom. The content area on each would feature the title, the body copy and the logo, with the fact being placed in a circle straddling the two areas for emphasis. These templates left a lot of room for making each sign unique, while still all operating on the same visual themes.

Each sign was laid out with a unique stock image behind it, some of which were achieved by photoshopping two or more of the stock images I’d taken together or otherwise modifying the original images. I would later combine the backgrounds from all of the key feature signs to form one cohesive background for the lobby sign, tying everything together.

As I set about designing the signs and researching the facts, I was finding it difficult to come up with relevant statistics and a lot of time was spent on researching green building practices. I generated all of the content for the fact bubbles, which, while time consuming, ultimately allowed me to choose the exact wording for each piece and thus I could most precisely layout each of those sections. I did a ton of tweaking to the kerning and line height to make the bubbles look just right.

During this time there were numerous revisions to the main body copy as we bounced it between myself, the marketing director and the architect involved. The body area especially and the signs as a whole were laid out to be flexible so the numerous changes were relatively tolerable. (I really hate doing things more than once because there are changes to copy but have found that this all too often is how it goes when working in-house.)

Step four: Application

Once all the content revisions were made and all the necessary design and copy changes implemented, the signs went through several channels of approval and were ready to be ordered. Based on our initial field trip, the dimensions were decided (for the building signs 7” w x 5” h x .25” d, and 18”w x 24” h x .5” d for the lobby sign). While the signs were being produced, the architect involved and I took mockups I had printed and walked to the building to get some ideas as far as installation. We wanted the signs to as best as possible be located in a spot that was relevant to the green issue listed. This is relatively obvious in some cases (ie “Water Savings” was to be in a hallway near the bathrooms), and in some cases not so much (where exactly do you locate the “Where the hell do we put these things?” sign that says we bought wind credits to offset energy use? Maybe near a fan?). In the end, I think the signs turned out great in design as well as in concept, copy and execution. This was a large and involved project, but it was concept driven and was undertaken by a dedicated team and the sign system represents a really unique way in which we were able to add “green value” to the physical space. The entire sign set can be viewed at


If you liked this article, please help spread the news on the following sites:

  • Bump It
  • Blend It
  • Bookmark on Delicious
  • Stumble It
  • Float This
  • Reddit This
  • Share on FriendFeed
  • Clip to Evernote