Soaring Profits from Glistening Gateways
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Soaring Profits from Glistening Gateways

Airports are bustling with opportunities as architects bring sign builders into the design process to capitalize on 21st century trends.

By Jennifer LeClaire

Airports are evolving from drab depots to glistening gateways into and out of the cities they serve. Architects, designers and sign fabricators are teaming up to develop 21st century schemes that capture the attention of billions of travelers each year.

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  • >From wayfinding and security symbols to retail and promotional signage, modern airports are adopting new strategies and it’s paying dividends for sign builders. Success begins with understanding the latest trends in airport signage and identifying your company’s niche.

    “There are enormous opportunities for sign builders to create wayfinding, retailing and advertising signage,” says Wayne Hunt, principal of Hunt Design Associates in Pasadena, Calif. “From the freeway to the parking garage through the security checkpoint to seat 26D on the airplane, the typical traveler sees up to 40 signs.”

    Finding the way
    Wayfinding systems are fundamental to airport signage. With ever-increasing security directives springing up since 9-11, many airports are seeking strategies to streamline the overwhelming amount of information presented to hurried travelers.

    New York and New Jersey airports are prime examples. John F. Kennedy, Newark Liberty, and LaGuardia operate separately, as do all individual terminals. Over the years, this has resulted in a vast variety of signage styles and types with inconsistent ­ sometimes even conflicting ­ information displayed in an already highly complex environment.

    Bureau Mijksennaar, a Dutch wayfinding company with offices in New York City, developed one master system that could be applied to all airport terminals, roadways, and parking facilities, with the sophistication to direct passengers from all over the world within an environment of hundreds of possible destinations.

    “We designed the system from the traveler’s point of view,” explains Paul Mijksennaar. “We are using very bright colors, like yellow and green with black, so people can easily spot the signs from a distance.”

    Designing by mood
    Mijksennaar’s team discovered that travelers are in one of three different moods. The traveler trying to catch a plane, for example, is under time pressures. To accommodate these travelers Mijksennaar created signs with large black letters on a yellow background to clearly indicate check-in desks, gates and baggage carousels.

    Travelers waiting on connecting flights are the most relaxed and have time on their hands. For this category Mijksennaar created signs with yellow letters on a black background to indicate airport facilities, like restrooms. Finally, when travelers arrive at their destination they are typically less stressed, but fatigued. At this point, their goal is to get out of the airport as quickly as possible. For this category Mijksennaar created signs with white letters on a green background to indicate ground transportation and parking areas.

    The system has gained wide recognition in the design community. International Design magazine praised the firms’ work as “the best signage of the 21st century bar none” and the Society of Environmental Design awarded the firm an Honor Award.

    Plasma Screens Point the Way
    Plasma screens are also finding acceptance in wayfinding systems. Plasma screens came on the airport scene when the Transportation Security Administration began adding new security directives. Now they are popping up on back walls of ticket counters and public spaces as changeable directional and informational signs.

    “The trend in general is toward changeable message signs of one type or another with the hot ticket right now being plasma screens,” says Thomas Long, principal and senior designer for Apple Designs, Inc., an informational system design firm headquartered in Raleigh, N.C. “As liquid crystal displays (LCDs) become more affordable and large enough to display copy in sizes that people can read we’ll see more of them in airport terminals.”

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    Oakland International Airport has commissioned Long’s firm to develop directional signage that includes illuminated and non-illuminated, aluminum and acrylic, fluorescent tubes and LCD’s. According to Long, “the LCD’s allow the airport to direct traffic to an international check-in area that opens and closes on a periodic basis throughout the week. Since it requires frequently changing changeable message signs and some multi-lingual messages, the LCD’s were an ideal solution.”

    Airports More Hospitable and Taking Off
    Modern airports are inviting more retailers and restaurants to entice travelers with colorful signs and graphics. Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport (LAS) is a vibrant model. The 684,000 square foot, 26-gate site represents the future of airport signage.

    “Most modern airports allow retailers and food establishments to use commercial-like signage,” says Hunt, whose firm developed the wayfinding program with themed retail identity graphics for LAS. “Instead of airport language, the signs are in brand language. The brand names are featured in a very street-like way, with color, animation and logos.”

    LAS’s retail/concession and gaming concourse (dubbed the Airstrip) features large projecting marquees, animated wall graphics and neon signs representative of the city’s theme. The Cinnabon, sits amid slot machines and uses a humongous fiberglass cup with neon “steam” billowing out. These high-flying design schemes are ready for takeoff in other airport renovation projects.

    Targeted Airport Advertising
    JCDecaux Airport is changing the face of airport advertising with unique concepts designed to keep the message in front of the traveler by incorporating advertising into services. Baggage carts act as moving billboards that circulate throughout all areas of an airport, for example, and courtesy phone centers located in arrival area allows passengers to select and contact the accommodation or transportation company of their choice.

    Jetbridge sponsorship is an up and coming trend, according to Bernard Parisot, chief executive officer of JCDecaux Airport, a New York City headquartered division of JCDecaux Out of Home Media Group. Adhered to the panels of the jetbridge to and from each airplane, jetbridge sponsorships are the first and last advertisements travelers see.

    Wraps, too, are gaining popularity. Wraps are large-format advertising messages digitally printed on a unique vinyl adhesive material. When adhered to walls, windows or even floors, they give the illusion that they are part of the existing terminal structure.

    “Wall wraps allow advertisers to display very striking ads in large sizes at premium locations without creating additional clutter,” says Parisot. “In JFK’s terminal seven we wrapped the interior of the jet bridges and it’s getting attention.”

    Ch-ch-changes
    As architects approach airport projects, sign builders are being welcomed to the team much earlier in the process to ensure that the signage blends in with the design. Even smaller sign shops can benefit from airport renovations.

    “When airports are under construction or when businesses close, there are good opportunities to create and install temporary signage,” says Sue White, principal of a FASTSIGNS franchise in Minneapolis. “A sign might point travelers to the new Starbucks at gate six or announce that Cinnabon is closed for remodeling at gate seven. We also cover the insides of windows with paper that contains company logos for new businesses that are ‘coming soon.’”

    White has capitalized on the opportunities in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, which is in the midst of a $3 billion expansion program. FASTSIGNS provides window lettering, banners, point of purchase signs, menu boards and directional signage for Host Marriott. FASTSIGNS is also producing a good number of blade signs with lit interiors that display a company’s logo, non-smoking signs for glass doors and plenty of security signage throughout the airport.

    Whether it’s inside or outside, in the baggage claim or the jetbridge, signage is becoming a more important element of the airport experience and sign builders are becoming valuable members of the design team.

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