A Second Look at ADA Signage
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A Second Look at ADA Signage

Once you understand the letter of the law, you can work within its boundaries to unlock creative appeal in your ADA-compliant sign projects.

By Jennifer LeClaire

Restrooms. Stairwells. Room numbers. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) signs are everywhere you look. That spells an opportunity for your company ­ if you know how to satisfy the regulations.

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  • If you can satisfy them with style, you can win the favor of clients who want attractive alternatives to humdrum ADA signage.

    Let’s face it. ADA regulations don't leave much wiggle room on most design elements. Here’s a little ADA 101 for you…Letters can’t be smaller than 5/8-inch or larger than 2 inches. All letters must be a minimum 3/32 inches thick for tactility. And, generally, you cannot use elaborate or decorative fonts. San Serif fonts, like Helvetica, are the staple of most ADA signs. It may sound restrictive, and it is at some level, but the goal is not to stifle creativity. The goal is to serve an intended audience.

    “We aren’t trying to limit the choice of content style on signs,” says David Yanchulis, an accessibility specialist with the United States Access Board, a federal agency responsible for developing design criteria for ADA-compliant signage, transit vehicles, buildings and other equipment. “We are just trying to ensure that signs are legible for people with disabilities.”

    While ADA guidelines define font size, contrast and other criteria, the law does not define specific design criteria as it relates to aesthetics. Letter height, Braille placement, font, and color contrast make only minimal impacts on the visual appearance. There are ways to make ADA signage more attractive while still adhering to the guidelines.

    ADA-compliant materials are one way to make the difference between a ho-hum sign and an attractive presentation. Sign frames with the ability to change printed inserts are another. Finally, understanding what the guidelines really say about color contrast and icons could give you more freedom than you thought.

    “Signs can be designed and made from an amazing variety of materials ranging from basic plastics to very elaborate designs of natural stone, woods, or metals,” says Doug Mier, a partner and operations manager at two FastSigns franchises in Kentucky. “Many of the new synthetic materials designed for countertops are excellent choices for this type of signage.”

    Mier points to a recent project his company did for a new hospital. It involved layers of Corian with varying colors. The Corian was cut into different shapes and combined to create a pleasing, overall design. The project illustrates that budget and imagination define creativity, he says. Budget, Mier adds, is the driving force behind most ADA signage.

    Some ADA sign manufacturers are finding new ways to add flexibility to the mix, though. New products, combined with color matching skills and ability to understand what the regulations do and do not mean can yield ADA signs fitting for even the most sophisticated settings.

    “There are several companies that have designed complete series of sign frames and bases that can be used as the basic platform for ADA sign programs,” Mier says. “These frames and bases may be modified by color, shape, or the inclusion of printed inserts.”

    Frost Manufacturing, a Worcester, Mass.-based ADA sign manufacturer, is one of the companies Meier mentioned. Julieane Frost, the company’s marketing manager, says the ability to insert individuals’ names, graphics and bulletin boards is becoming a popular option.

    “College professors and researchers like them, because they can put information about their field of study or research and office hours,” Frost explains. “The clear acrylic cover is easily removed with a special tool, and so the information can be changed as often as they wish.”

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    In many cases, especially for new construction, the project architect determines an overall theme or design. That can sometimes be a real challenge, sign experts agree, since the manufacturing process must now meet the design specifications and fall within a specific budget. However, knowledgeable ADA sign makers can make the most of the opportunity.

    “We try to match colors and frames to the décor so that they coordinate and provide a unified look throughout the building,” Frost says. “We match the ADA room signs with the building directory and directional signs, which do not have to be ADA. Our goal is a coordinated, professional look that is both attractive and functional.”

    While there are color contrast requirements, these do not limit creativity in and of themselves, says Craig Berger, director of education for the Society for Environmental Graphic Design. The ADA guidelines recommend a 70 percent Light Reflectance Value (LRV), but this is not a strict requirement.

    “There are many color combinations in the 60 to 70 percent range that work well together, which is one reason why the 70 percent is not a strict requirement,” Berger says. “However, you need to stay within that realm. Most major paint manufacturers include LRVs in their color swatch books.”

    Berger offers several tips on determining the appropriate color contrast. You could use a spectrometer analysis and, in fact, this is the only way to truly tell the color contrast of two colors or materials. This requires a spectral reflectometer. You could also use the LRV color numbers in the swatches he mentioned. Be sure, though, to pay attention to the finish.

    “The ADA guidelines do require a non-glare finish for foreground or background signs,” Berger explains. “There are also a number of state and local codes that specify the level of glare. You want an eggshell finish, which rates 11 to 19 the glossimeter. You can get this information from the paint or material specifications.”

    Contrast between the letters and the background is also a vital part of the regulations. A sign should be attractive, but not at the expense of it being readable. If people are getting lost the signs aren’t doing their job and could run into code violations. Of course, part of the problem could be installation, which is not always straightforward.

    “Sometimes we see signs that are not installed according to the ADA guidelines. Sometimes our own installer has a problem installing a sign correctly because of architectural peculiarities, such as not having space beside the door,” Frost says. “In those cases, he does the best he can, using common sense, to place the sign so that it can be read by both seeing and blind people.”

    The ADA also determines the use of approved icons. Gender specific restrooms, stairwells, and wheel chair accessibility are the most commonly used icons, however there are icons used for other specific purposes, such as to indicate volume control telephones and assistive listening systems. “Since the icons are very specific to their usage, it’s very hard to make mistakes,” Mier says. “One problem that I have seen is that in many cases, sign makers will forget to include the wheel chair icon for restrooms.”

    Again, architectural design drives most new trends for ADA signage. Generally, new construction projects or interior re-models have a specific look for the interior of the building and the signs need to compliment that décor while staying within the guidelines.

    “The challenge is to find a stock sign series that compliments that décor theme or then to design a complete sign package that accomplishes that,” Mier says. “These signs are not complicated, yet from a true design aspect, they require a substantial knowledge base of manufacturing processes and materials in order to create a truly unique, attractive design and still meet ADA compliancy needs.”

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