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Is the ADA Sign Market For You? Part II Visual Signs

If you thought that ADA was all about Braille, think again! What do you need to know about all the other signs that make up an architectural sign system?

By Sharon Toji

Probably the best-kept secret of the ADA, when it comes to signs, is that Braille signs are just the tip of the ADA iceberg. Room identification signs are just one small part of an effective architectural sign system, just the final piece in solving the wayfinding puzzle for people who need to get around complicated sites and buildings.

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  • You might wonder why all wayfinding signs don't require tactile characters and Braille. After all, people who are blind need to know what direction to follow, just the same as anyone else. The answer is, that even if the information is important, there just isn't any practical way to deliver that information via regular signs installed on posts, walls, or overhead. To find them, people who are blind would need to make an inch-by-inch search, via touch, of every wall and climb on ladders to examine every pole and post along the way. Even if they did happen to find a directional or informational sign, chances are, it wouldn't match their particular needs. If you are rushing to the hospital birthing center, a directional sign to "X-Ray" won't be much help!

    Other Ways for Wayfinding Signs
    The most practical answer for giving wayfinding information to people with no usable vision is through audible sign systems. Some of them are on the market now, and they hold great promise, though there are still some problems to be solved. But the current ADA Accessibility Guidelines deal with traditional "displayed" signs, so the only practical place to include tactile characters and Braille is on signs that can be easily located -- the signs that are installed next to doors, and which identify the rooms behind those doors.

    That doesn't mean, though, that visual signs are useless to the entire blindness community. In fact, the great majority of people who are legally blind do have some usable vision. Therefore, visual signs that follow the ADA guidelines will provide vital information for many blind people.

    The first, and most important, set of rules for visual signs is that they must have high contrast, and they must be non-glare. Lack of contrast and reflective materials are the two great enemies of people with vision impairments -- especially the problems that come to many of us when we reach our sixties and seventies.

    The vital sign message, be it to direct or to inform, must have a very high dark to light or light to dark contrast with its background. Light characters on a dark background are always best. The background needs to be as non-reflective as possible, and metal, unless it is painted or finished to make it dull, is always too reflective, as is any plastic or acrylic which is not finished to be non-glare.

    That doesn't mean, however, that subtle color contrasts and polished metal surfaces are out. It is just that they need to be used in a creative manner so that they don't impinge on the vital wayfinding message. Frames, headers and footers, logos and other decorative elements of all kinds can use these kinds of colors and surfaces to create a wonderful imaginative effect.

    How It Should Look
    The next thing to consider is the text itself. Although type is not as regulated as it is for tactile characters, we still need to be restrained in our choice of fonts.

    Character and stroke proportion are both regulated. Current ADAAG expresses these rules in ratios, but the equivalent percentages are easier to deal with. ADAAG doesn't tell us what characters to measure, either. An uppercase "I" gives us a good height measurement, and we can measure the width of the "I" for stroke width. Although new rules, which allow a wider character, make use of an uppercase "O," current rules are more useful if we measure the uppercase "X" across the base. The result will be the same.

    What we need is a font where the width of the "X" at the base is no greater than 100 percent of the height of the "I" in that same font. In other words, if the "I" is one inch high, the base of the "X" cannot be more than one inch across. The "X" cannot be less than 60 percent of the height or, with a one inch high "I," the "X" must be at least 6/10 (or 3/5 inch) across to qualify.

    When we measure the stroke of the one-inch high "I," it has to be between 1/10 inch and 2/10 (or 1/5 inch) across in other words, from 10 percent to 20 percent of the height.

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    Once we have found a font, which falls within these limits, and it is not a decorative font but has classic letter shapes, we have a "winner." We can use that font, even if it is a serif font, for informational and directional signs. And, we can use upper and lowercase letters. As a matter of fact, upper and lowercase type is much easier to read than all uppercase, so it should be preferred for use in all signs except tactile signs.

    To go the extra step and produce a really readable sign, we can be sure that there is a visible space between each character, and space between each line of copy that equals more than 1/3 of the letter height. Space around the individual letters and lines of copies is vital if we want to make the signs readable for a large percentage of the population. The most unreadable visual signs are those with large, bold uppercase characters, tightly spaced, and crowded right out to the edge of the sign panel. If, on top of that, the typeface is either highly condensed or extended so that the character shapes are distorted, we have a true "sign disaster."

    Size Matters
    Our next consideration is character size. We know that current rules dictate that overhead signs, which must be mounted with the bottom edge at least 80 inches above the floor, must have characters that are three inches or more high. Of course that is the uppercase characters, and if you use upper and lower case, the lowercase characters will not be that high. Nevertheless, it is easy to see that if we make other signs with characters, which are proportional in size to those on overhead signs, we are talking about pretty large characters. Remember, we are trying to make these signs readable by many people who are legally blind, not just those with normal or near normal eyesight.

    Even if signs are at eye level, we can't always get right up close to read them. Therefore, determining the character size needs to be done by considering the combined height of the sign installation and the distance from which it should be viewed. Obviously, large buildings with huge open areas, like convention centers, or with long and wide corridors, like airports or new hospitals, will need signs with larger characters. If hallways are short and corridors are narrow, the characters can be smaller. Sometimes we have a situation, like an evacuation plan, where we need a larger heading, to lure the reader over, combined with much smaller text that can be read from a few inches away once the reader moves up close. The ANSI A117.1-1998 standard has an excellent chart for visual characters that can provide guidance.

    It should be noted, also, that most exterior wayfinding signs need to have larger characters than those located indoors. If the signs are in parking lots and garages, where they may need to be viewed from moving vehicles, they might be larger still. Don't assume that drivers don't need highly visible signs. Even though drivers are not legally blind, their vision may be deteriorating to the point where they need all the help they can get in order to read signs while driving, even at a slow speed.

    Where should visual signs be located? Unfortunately, we don't get any guidance here from ADAAG. The only rule is to locate projecting or overhanging signs at least 80 inches above the floor or ground. Every situation will be different, because, unless we have multiple buildings of identical design with identical tenant build-outs, we won't find exactly the same circumstances twice.

    The ADA guidelines do tell us, at least in a general sense, where to locate signs that direct to wheelchair accessible entrances. We need to locate them so that steps do not need to be retraced. In other words, we don't allow a wheelchair user to get all the way to an inaccessible entrance and then force him or her to turn around and backtrack to get to the path that leads to the accessible entrance. Signs with the International Symbol of Accessibility, that identify the accessible path of travel, must appear at junctions, or decision points, where the accessible path diverges from the regular path of travel.

    And, even though there is no specific rule to tell us so, it makes sense also to place all accessibility symbols where they are easy to see for the people who need to use those particular features. Symbols for wheelchair users should be placed at eye level when they can be viewed from fairly close, or up high when they need to be spotted from a distance or over the heads of a crowd. Symbols for TTY and volume control phones should almost always be placed where they can be seen above the heads of those using phones. Otherwise, those phones are difficult to locate from a distance.

    Common Sense
    For other directional signs, there are some common sense wayfinding guidelines. If you have ever noticed how frustrating it is, when driving through an unfamiliar city, to follow signs leading to a freeway, and then come to a junction with no sign, you know how important it is to place directional signs at points of decision, whether outside on the grounds of a large facility, or inside a building with many corridors. And, of course, if the directional sign to the freeway is there, but is hidden by a tree or too small to read, it doesn't do you much good, either. Position and size of directional signs should be carefully calculated according to reading distance and facility size and type.

    In terms of informational signs, which include signs that give us information about the site and building lay out and what destinations we'll find there, the rule is once the visitor knows the "address" he or she wants, to begin with general information and then get more specific. For example, at a college campus, we know we want to end up at "Registration." A site map shows every building on campus, and gives us a directory with the most important destinations or the general function for each. Registration is in the Administration Building, Building A. At this point, we don't need to know what the specific room number is. That information will first be presented in the lobby directory of Building A. All we need to know now is how to get to Building A.

    When we get to Building A, the directory tells us that Registration is in 302. That tells us we need to go to the third floor, so the next direction or information we need is how to get to the third floor. If the elevator, escalator or stair is not immediately visible, signs should direct to them. "Hidden" elevators are a problem for people with mobility impairments, so directional signs to elevators are often a necessity. The directional signs that mention or include Room 302 specifically won't appear until we emerge on the third floor.

    Understanding the general principles of good wayfinding design, and spending some time understanding the specific facility and its uses before designing and laying out visual signs will help to avoid "sign clutter." And, it will provide your client with a sign system, which will help all the varied users to his or her facility find their way with a minimum of assistance. And that, in turn, reflects the spirit of the ADA independent access.

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