Out and about with Lewis Roden: signage
Lewis Roden, the Arts Marketing Association's (AMA) Member Community Manager, set himself the task of seeing 100 live shows in a year. In the second of a series following his progress, Lewis gives us his observations on what makes signage successful.
What goes into great theatre signage? Eye-catching signs can really make a theatre stand out from the competition, consolidate your brand and add to the whole experience. But clear and accessible signage also plays a vital part in getting across important information and safety messages. It can also make navigating an unfamiliar building easy and stress-free. Get it right and it can celebrate, motivate, inform, reinforce, and direct. Get it wrong and you can ruin an otherwise brilliant experience.
In 2022 I set myself the goal of seeing 100 live shows. While I was out and about meeting my challenge, I noticed huge amounts about all the things that surround the actual performance - what works and what doesn't. You can find my observations on theatre programmes in my first post. Now I'm moving on to signage. And what a better way to start than signage you often need in a hurry...toilets.
Toilets and Bathrooms have been rapidly pushed to the forefront of a lot of the conversations we’re having with each other and our audiences. A few venues that I visited were exploring signage solutions to make everyone feel safe and welcome. The most popular approach that The Old Vic as well as the Bush Theatre have adopted is listing what is inside the toilets e.g. x4 Urinals x2 Cubicles, and having no gendered language surrounding them at all. Other venues such as the Kiln theatre have simply included a small block of text containing a statement of support to encourage people to use a bathroom that fits with their gender identity.
The other element that has been widely discussed around this is the use of the transgender symbol ⚧. It's my understanding that some parts of the trans community such as non-binary people do not like the use of this as it still has the connotations of binary gender associated with it.
An additional point for thought is that I have seen a few venues using the accessible toilets as non-gendered facilities. This is less than ideal as it introduces the connotation that being gender non-conforming is some form of disability.
Directional signs helps your audience navigate your building quickly and effectively. A lot of our spaces weren’t originally purpose built for how they are now used and they are often split over a few floors. Entering a new, unfamiliar space where you don't know where anything is can be daunting. I still feel nervous when I enter a new venue. So to welcome in new people, it's very important that we make them feel comfortable.
One of the ways of doing this is by having a whole venue map, so that audiences know where all the key things are including: bar, bathrooms, information points, ticket office and performance spaces. This can seem a bit excessive especially if you're a smaller venue but for people who struggle with social interaction or are neurodivergent this really helps with their experience in the venue. It also cuts down on the number of times that your Front of House staff are asked where the nearest ‘x’ is.
Some venues, particularly traditional theatres and any large auditorium, are built across several levels. Many venues, especially theatres, refer to each level as a specific part of the auditorium e.g. ‘dress circle’. For audiences, who aren't well versed in the language of the arts a good solution that I've seen is numbering each floor and listing what is contained on each e.g. Level 2 – Dress Circle: Toilets, Bar, Cloakroom.
The first thing that most people see when they visit your venue for the first time is your exterior signage. A few simple things can be done to make sure your venue feels inviting and removes literal barriers to entry. This small checklist can help you as much as your audience.
- Show me the door. If you can, approach your venue from multiple different angles. Then make sure that wayfinding signage from each of these directs people easily to the entrance. A large welcome sign on or above the door helps to both mark the entrance and creates that all important first impression.
- Make sure the name of the venue matches the name on the tickets. It sounds obvious but many organisations have had different names throughout their lifetime. Removing the old name or at least making sure that the current one is the most prominent will remove confusion and lost/late audience members.
- Organic Socials. Many visitors especially younger ones will take a photo outside your venue as they arrive or leave. The focus of this is usually the signage of your venue and it's a great opportunity to great extra social coverage, builds recognition and helps feed anticipation of a great theatre experience.
Seats and rows
Without a doubt the most important time I interact with signage in a performance space is when I’m trying to find my seat. Most of the time it's dimly lit, cramped and a little bit stressful. All of the spaces that I've visited recently have the row letters on the side of each end seat as is traditionally done. Having this as the only place that it's listed though presents some issues, notably if the row numbers are close to the floor or if it's being covered by something like a coat or bag. To combat this issue several venues are starting to display the rows on the floor as well as on the side of the seat. Having this on the floor makes it easier to find the row even if the ends seats aren’t covered. The other factor to consider with the seat signage is the font and size.
Photography Signs and Trigger Warnings
A new trend that has recently come to my attention are photography signs. Lots of larger venues have the front of house staff hold photography warnings up in front of the audience before the performance is about to start. A few other venues, such as the Old Vic, have taken this further, producing a simple prominent sign that audiences walk past when the enter the space. I think this can be especially useful when there are special circumstances surrounding the set design and/or designer. It always helps to indicate when it's fine to take photographs e.g. before and after the show, during the intervals and when taking photographs is just not acceptable e.g. during the show, photos of the set and stage, actors.
An increasing number of venues are beginning to provide content (or trigger) warnings. This has become something which certain audience groups, such as younger audiences, expect to be available if there is any distressing content. These along with self-care guides, make going to the theatre a viable option for people who have difficulties with live performance. You might also consider emailing these guides and warnings out as part of the pre-visit comms strategy.
These content warnings, need to be considered essential signage and should go through the same sign off procedure as anything else. These should be displayed with your show running times and cover notices. A long running musical with a cult following in an off West End venue failed to list a major warning which caused a lot of conversation and criticism of the production and the venue itself.
According to the Office of National Statistics, the average man is 5'9" and the average woman is 5'3". As a relatively tall person sign height is not something I'd considered. It wasn’t until I attended a press night with a friend who is significantly shorter than me that I noticed the problem.
When call signage is placed too high, it creates journey friction. Much like on websites, journey friction is the enemy of someone’s theatregoing experience. Reducing these friction points will increase enjoyment for the audience member as well as ease the flow of visitors across the venue.
Sign Location – Location Location Location
The final major consideration when it comes to signage is location. It might be obvious to some but it bears repeating:
signs should be where your audience expect them, not where you expect them.
Most of the time your expectations and your audiences' expectations line up but your audience can experience your venue in a fundamentally different way than yourself.
If you think this is happening and there seems to be bottlenecks or confusion invite a friend to your venue who has never been before. Ask them to go to key places and watch their eyeline. Most of the time where they look will be the natural place for signage.
Lewis Roden, Member Community Manager, Arts Marketing Association
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