From airports to casinos, retailers are transcending industry lines when using signage to promote their wares and services. Entertainment and excitement are the goals. Theatrics and graphics are the tools used to compel shoppers and diners to linger longer.
Whether it's projecting images and logos directly onto New York City sidewalks and buildings, or taking advantage of captive customers on jam-packed Los Angeles freeways, graphic artists are discovering that the same visual effects that won them success in the entertainment industry can be tweaked and adjusted to fit signage for retail centers and restaurants.
"There aren't any box signs on sticks anymore," says veteran designer Emory Clotfelter. As president of Image Works, an Ashland, Va.-based custom signage company, Clotfelter says the key to meeting clients' desires, refining their images and advancing their identities is an increased focus on dimension and textures.
"I've been in the (signage) business since 1963, and there's no question there's a major movement toward quality design," Clotfelter says. "It's no longer the mind set of what's the cheapest and easiest way to do signage, but rather, what's going to give me the best visual impact and, at the same time, look appropriate in the environment in which it's being constructed."
Clotfelter points to the factory outlet industry, which has typically personified its bargain-basement prices through a warehouse appearance. When Image Works secured the job to design entrance signage for the Riviera Centre factory outlet store in Foley, Ala., the emphasis was on bright, neon-lit signage to give the center an upscale look. At night, the open-faced channel letters and surface of the 35-foot sign are illuminated in irradiant blue, catching the attention of passing motorists and tourists in the Mobile Bay area. The design earned Image Works a first-place award in a national trade competition.
"What's interesting about signage is it represents a very small part of a development's budget compared to the overall cost and investment of a construction project," Clotfelter says. "But what a lot of de-velopment and business people are beginning to recognize is that signs are the signatures of facilities. Developers are realizing it's critical to the projection of a (facility's) image."
Retailers may be wise to take a tip from Carmax, a company that is venturing into the Los Angeles market and targeting frustrated motorists who spend hours on bottlenecked interstates. The mass marketer of vehicles is taking electronic message centers (EMCs) literally to new heights. A 75-foot sign houses a 13-by-28-foot EMC that projects bargains and news bulletins to motorists. Within 30 seconds, messages and graphics can be easily changed at the quick stroke of a computer key. De-spite their longevity, Clotfelter says, EMCs are becoming more high-tech and Las Vegas-styled in their approach to reaching shoppers.
"EMCs have been around a long time, and they're very effective on high-traffic roads," says Clotfelter, who de-signs all of Carmax's signage. "It's definitely high-powered advertising and it's not a cheap investment, but if you've got a high traffic count, it can be a valuable advertising opportunity."
Raising the roof When proprietors of the Ala Moana shopping center in Honolulu, Hawaii, began the daunting task of remodeling the nearly 800,000 sq. ft. retail facility, Scott Architectural Graphics Inc., of Santa Rosa, Calif., was selected to head the design of the entire environmental graphics program. Since it is one of the largest retail centers in the world, with 220 tenants and five major department stores, success of the renovation program depended on the facility's ability to continue to meet the needs of its customers and vendors.
"Once we jumped into the permanent signage program, (the mall's) ownership came forward with an urgent call to spruce up the center during the renova-tion and to keep it operational," recalls Michael Burch, project principal with Scott Architectural.
Promoting a "Raising the Roof" theme to explain the addition of a third level to the center, Scott Architectural coordinated a comprehensive construction and temporary signage plan that included specifying paint colors and modular decorative components for 10,000 linear feet of barricades, as well as 1,200 freestanding directional and informational signs for shoppers.
Scheduled for completion in February 1999, the renovation will sport an updated Polynesian theme with clean, machined elements contrasted against traditional Polynesian patterns. Using a variety of hand-finished acrylics, porcelain enamel, cast resins and machined aluminum, Burch says, his company aimed to keep the basic design of the program consistent with the overall architecture of the facility.
"We envisioned the signage program as the jewelry on the architecture," he says. "Signage should be a complement to the architecture, but at the same time it should stand out from the surroundings so that people can recognize informational points."
In addition to increasing the facility's GLA, Ala Moana will tout additional parking space, a new major department store, an improved food court and several full-service restaurants.
Across the Pacific in the exclusive shopping circles of Palm Springs, Calif., Scott Architectural recently completed an environmental graphics program for the Gardens on El Paseo in Palm Desert, Calif. The one-anchor center, located in the heart of an existing and elite shopping district, allowed Scott Architectural to tap into a rich array of themes and materials to promote an exclusive shopping experience for Gardens visitors.
"There was already an existing character and feel to this (shopping) district," Burch recalls. "From a design standpoint, the architecture is very strong and yet very subtle. So, it was a challenge to design a (signage) program to integrate with the architecture. Our goal was to provide the Gardens with a very strong identity without overpowering the existing retailers."
The Gardens' logo is fashioned after the hearty, native agave cactus, an abstracted desert image drawn with a modern flair that pervades every area of the Gardens' facilities.
In addition to its work with the Gardens, Scott Architectural last year designed the master plan for all signage and graphics for a planned community called Valencia Town Center Drive in California's Santa Clarita Valley, north of Los Angeles. The Valencia project comprises a traditional Main Street residential and business district anchored by a Hyatt Hotel and Conference Center, a 22-screen theater, an IMAX three-dimensional, stadium-seating entertainment center and 350,000 sq. ft. of leasable retail and business space.
The Valencia project encompasses the development of a downtown street that extends from a retail shopping center to an upscale residential townhouse project. "The project entailed developing six distinct areas that all required their own family of signs," Burch says. From parking and streetscapes to hotel and hospitality graphics, Scott Architectural's mission was to design signage and wayfinding graphics to move people from one end of the street to the other.
For the entertainment and retail sections of the Valencia project, the firm chose oversized, vintage movie scenes divided into four panels and framed by photo album corner-keepers. For other retail and business office space, blade signs and brackets were selected for tenants' logos. Icons illustrating garage themes were created to assist visitors with finding their vehicles. In addition, uniform directional signage was used to create a sense of place without distracting from business identities.
Theatrical crossovers Best known for its environmental graphic designs for big entertainment companies like Disney, Warner Brothers and Universal Studios, Hunt Design Associates of Pasadena, Calif., is capitalizing on amusement themes, integrating them into the retail world. Particularly in airports, where retail tenants are becoming an important and lucrative part of a voyager's travels, signage is critical to the success of retailers, as well as to the enhancement of pleasurable travel experiences.
Hunt Design was also the major principal in charge of designing a state-of-the-art signage and environmental graphics program at the recently christened Satellite D terminal at Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport -- the 12th busiest in the United States.
According to Wayne Hunt, principal of Hunt Design, the scope of the signage program his company is implementing throughout the 684,000 sq. ft. facility includes the naming of and graphics for "Airstrip," a new entertainment and retail venue at the 26-gate terminal.
"Short of catching your plane, shopping and gaming go together in Las Vegas," Hunt says. "We grouped two areas in each concourse and suggested these areas be themed and named, so that they begin to look like what a shopper would expect in a shopping environment."
The new, brightly lit retail/concession and gaming concourse features large projecting marquees, animated wall graphics and bold neon signs to entertain and celebrate the history of Las Vegas. "Our role was to give the terminal definition and color," says Hunt.
Featuring a pop-art airstrip that Hunt compares to graphics seen on MTV (see photo, page 100), the signage is an energetic depiction of an airstrip and airplane in angular forms and colors. The wayfinding system was intentionally designed to be a neutral contrast to the retail signage.
Hunt's latest graphics venture is an entertainment-driven shopping center in Cancun, Mexico. Scheduled to open in March 1999, La Isla, a 250,000 sq. ft. retail center, will sport 50 tenants and will be geared toward American tourists.
"Cancun doesn't have any integrated dining/shopping destinations," Hunt says. "This (center) will offer water features, leisurely strolling, and a theater staged in a mock-Caribbean environment." To attest to the power of entertainment in the Las Vegas retail market, the Forum Shops at Caesar's Palace recently unveiled a mammoth, moving billboard titled "Roman Galley." Fabricated by Jon Richards Co. of Mira Loma, Calif., the 62-by-28-foot multimedia billboard required an elaborate, week-long installation. According to Forum Shop spokeswoman Maureen Crampton, the huge sign is the first of its kind in the nation -- fitting for a 105-plus-store shopping center billed as the "Shopping Wonder of the World."
"Las Vegas is one of the most competitive and outrageous advertising markets in the country," Crampton contends. "In order to make an impact, you too must be outrageous." The Roman Galley features a mahogany crow's nest, a specially fabricated sail manufactured from PVC, and seven 60-lb. automated fiberglass arms powered by the sign's own fully working transmission. Designed to resemble a Roman ship, the sign also features a tongue-in-cheek twist. As Crampton says, "Instead of rowing oars, we have incorporated massive, three-dimensional mechanical shopping arms gripping equally large shopping bags. And six of our merchants are displaying their logos on the bags."
Leaving Las Vegas Though far from the neon lights and around-the-clock show business atmosphere of Las Vegas, ARTeffects of Bloomfield, Conn., has custom-designed and manufactured signage for several local casinos with extensive retail facilities.
The developers of one of ARTeffects' projects, Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn., implemented a $1.5 million signage program to bathe the seven-restaurant recreational and retail facility with 1,500 signs. Owned by the Mohegan Indian tribe and located on its reservation, the $300 million, 240-acre casino features a Southwestern-flavored graphic design program that segments retail and entertainment facilities into seasons. Signage at each restaurant reflects the international flavor of the eatery's cuisine, while earthy tones and an antiquated appearance were used to promote a homey atmosphere for one gaming establishment.
ARTeffects also designed graphics and signage for the Foxwoods Resort and Casino in neighboring Litchfield, Conn., which offers extensive retail and restaurant facilities. But, despite the similarity in the casinos' activities, Foxwoods' signage relies on neon backlighting with colorful teals and purples throughout. Dining and retail space is accented with bold colors and images, a stark contrast from the laid-back ambience promoted at the Mohegan Sun.
New projections What began 28 years ago as a special-effects technique for the entertainment industry has evolved into an effective signage and graphics program for retail and display markets. For the past six years, Optikinetics Ltd. in Ashland, Va., has installed special-effects projectors indoors and outdoors to provide retailers with moving images and logos to attract shoppers.
One of Optikinetics clients, Bloomingdale's in New York City, promotes use of its nine projectors to vendors in its cosmetics department. Nearby, CitiBank projects its logo from inside its building onto Fifth Avenue sidewalks. Similarly, Claire's Accessories, with more than 1,000 locations across the country, uses Optikinetics' projectors to sweep its logo across the inside of its stores. Disney's Team Mickey retail merchants, on the other hand, prefer to mount projectors underneath their roof overhangs, propelling cartoon images onto sidewalks.
Jeff Brightman, president of Optikinetics, says the use of projectors as signage and environmental graphics programs has evolved due to competition in the advertising business, as well as to retailers' desire to create more excitement within their industry.
"It definitely attracts attention and it's another way of doing signage," he says. "You can fill a wall or a ceiling with moving images to grab the attention of shoppers traveling down an escalator. It's fun and it's easy."
Shopping center managers are also promoting the use of projectors to tenants who rent "air space" to advertise special promotions or sales. The projectors then become a source of additional income or revenue for mall management.
Recreational retail As the director of marketing for the largest custom electric sign company in the United States, Garth Ruchin of Seattle-based Federal Sign says the signage industry is witnessing history in the making. And he's not referring to NBC broadcaster Tom Brokaw's account of Sen. John Glenn's recent return to space -- which was captured live in Times Square on Federal Sign's astrovision display.
Taking a few cues from the sporting industry, now capitalizing on interactive electronic scoreboards and entertainment themes, retailers are discovering the same techniques work wonders in capturing the interest and attention of shoppers.
"Retailers are taking their markets literally out to the streets and are marketing directly to consumers," Ruchin explains. "They're not eliminating mass markets like television and newspapers, but there's a greater focus on the point of sale and getting to where people shop directly."
Similar to the signage that Federal Sign has created for a number of sports arenas and stadiums, the company is creating movement in retailers' signage to promote excitement among shoppers.
"Sports is such an integral part of our daily lives, and it's as strong culturally as shopping and retailing," Ruchin says. "Our goal is to create an excitement about a venue. (Shopping malls) are no longer the traditional I-go-there-and-do-my-thing-and-leave place. People ex-pect to be entertained, and because there's so much competition for the entertainment, it's up to us to create areas that grab people's attention and create return visits."
A vivid illustration of how retailers are borrowing some tricks of the trade from their sporting counterparts is seen in the signage tower Federal Sign created for AMC Theaters of Grapevine Mills, in the Dallas suburb of Grapevine, Texas.
The 80-foot pylon sign incorporates a massive world globe perched atop an abstract-looking Eiffel Tower. Manufactured with metal and neon, the AMC name illuminates across the globe, creating an exciting effect for theater-goers.
"Retail has become so competitive that it's over-malled," Ruchin says. "A sign used to be something that just had to be there, but now we're literally taking the sales opportunity directly to the shopper. And, despite all of the restrictions placed on malls, there's some really cool stuff going on in signage."
Changing times, changing signs While graphic designers rely on an ever-evolving bevy of gimmicks and graphics to draw attention to their client's identity, mind sets and philosophies are also changing in the signage industry. "You've got to be more than a sign manufacturer," Clotfelter concedes. "Retailers should look for a graphic design firm that can coordinate a variety of issues on their behalf, including zoning, permitting and negotiating with local officials. It's definitely given new meaning to the term 'project management.'"
Clotfelter says some localities place a high priority on integrating signage into the local infrastructure. Though sensitive to retailers' needs to project their logos, there's also concern given to the aesthetics of pole treatment and metal embellishment of signs.
"In some California communities, it's a joint effort working through the design process because you have to negotiate with localities to get your designs approved," Clotfelter explains. "You may have a basic logo, but because of zoning and permitting issues, the structure of the sign may look a little different. Retailers should look for a company that has the staff and the ability to react to those needs."
Hunt notes other areas of importance in the signage industry, saying shopping environments have become more entertaining -- creating "crooked paths" within the retail and entertainment industries that occasionally gravitate toward each other. "We're absolutely in the place-making business," he says. "Our job is to help create memorable places to go. Many of these places have the same start and the same stuff. The point of difference has to be the architecture or the graphics so that there's a distinction between places."
As a designer of signs and graphics, Hunt reports that his job is to create a visually appealing graphics program that will make people want to return to the place of business. "You can hardly go to a shopping environment today without seeing a high level of signage," he says. "It's right out of theme parks. If every shopping center had a Border's, a Starbucks and a Gap, the point of difference is the environment and how we can maximize the architecture and the landscape to make these places unique and distinct."
Burch believes there's a fine line between promotion and profusion in the signage arena; the bottom line is creating a sense of place for the customer. "You can't just wallpaper a project with signs," he says. "You can't take the same approach every time, but you still have the same goal, which is to provide adequate identity for the project's end user. You've got to look at the context and the components of the project to create a sense of place."
Finally, one of the biggest challenges for retailers who embark on new signage or graphics programs is the local officials' misconceptions that signage adversely affects property values. To the contrary, Clotfelter says "studies indicate inadequate signage due to stringent local permitting and zoning regulations has an adverse economic effect on local tax revenues. I'm not advocating that there should be an unlimited number or size of signage. There needs to be controls, but they need to be reasonable."
Pointing to the largest freestanding sign east of the Mississippi at the Central Park retail center in Fredericksburg, Va., Clotfelter says even officials with the city that bills itself as the most historical in America were willing to listen to reason when asked to amend their strict sign ordinance.
"The trick is trying to find the right grounds to protect the aesthetics of the community," he says, "while at the same time giving property owners the flexibility to implement their designs."