Creating Civic Value with Signage: A Q&A with Cheri Devlin

News & Insights

Branded signage and art programs are a smart and strategic way to create a sense of place within a city, neighborhood or district – and a critical part of helping residents and visitors feel welcome and at ease as they navigate around town.

We recently had a conversation with one of our own resident experts, Cheri Devlin, who’s designed signage, art and branding programs for cities across the country. Here’s Cheri’s take on what civic organizations should consider first, and why this matters at all.

The West Hollywood Sunset Arts + Advertising Program recently announced the top-scoring applicants in their latest round of proposals, and it reminded us that you have a connection to this project from your work prior to Altitude. Can you tell us about it?

Before I joined Altitude, I worked with the City of West Hollywood and its planners to update their specific plan for Sunset Boulevard, a subset of the city’s general plan that governs off-site advertising signage on the Sunset Strip. This included developing standards for creative off-site signs, both static and digital. Aside from studying case studies and precedents, I developed photo simulations that informed distribution, locations and scale for off-site signs. The linear nature of the plan area – Sunset Boulevard – with its bends and changes in topography created view corridors and sub-districts. Layered over this were various land uses and a rich history of existing off-site signs that needed to be considered. And it is one of the most visible sites for advertising in the world. In some cases, billboards had become so profitable that property owners were letting them stand alone on land instead of developing the sites for other uses. The two most important and exciting parts of the plan update are the requirement for new digital signs to be integrated into a building’s architecture and the creation of a coordinated program for the display of public art on the new digital screens.

West Hollywood is a great example of a city embracing the opportunity to connect art and architecture with advertising’s revenue stream in a very innovative way, which aligns well with Los Angeles’ reputation as a creative hub. What are some of your other favorite examples?

Times Square has always been a favorite. Aside from its rich history in terms of off-site signs, it has always been a showcase of innovative and creative digital content and technology. Every night, Times Square hosts a carefully orchestrated public art display, “Midnight Moment,” which is the world’s largest and longest running digital public art program. Tokyo also has amazing sign districts like Shibuya that are at the forefront of digital technology. Some of the new 3-D digital billboards are amazing. I would love to see one in person soon!

If other cities or towns want to consider a similar program, what are the first things you suggest they think about as they embark on such a program?

Always consider content. A digital sign doesn’t work unless its content is purposeful and thoughtfully planned and programmed – which requires funding and staffing too. Will the signs be revenue generating and, if so, is there a market for advertising where the signs will be located? How can off-site signs be used to enhance rather than detract from the sense of place that the city or district wants to project? Consider pilot programs and locations to test the waters. The City of West Hollywood launched a design competition for a “Spectacular” creative sign on one of its parking lots … an incremental test for its Sunset Blvd program. Its success provided the city with a clear indicator that the more expansive project could work, and work well.

The Sunset Spectacular also clarified for West Hollywood that content partnerships not only with advertisers but also with public art programs helps to draw people in – like a new must-see exhibit. In the Los Angeles market, there are endless opportunities to partner with artists, filmmakers and others to create signage content. But this doesn’t mean that this kind of program can’t work outside of Hollywood. In Arlington, Virginia, where Amazon’s HQ2 has sparked the redevelopment of the massive National Landing district, Amazon would be a logical content partner for strategically placed digital displays which could also contribute greatly to the overall National Landing brand and sense of place.

How does digital signage tie into larger signage and wayfinding programs within districts like West Hollywood or National Landing?

Digital signage is becoming a bigger part of district placemaking and wayfinding programs, especially as it relates to real-time information. In North Hollywood, our team from Altitude is working with Trammell Crow on their District NoHo project, a massive new transit-oriented development that includes eight buildings across more than fifteen acres. We are creating a sign district and developing guidelines and specs for all exterior signs on each of the buildings within the development. We are also helping to locate the digital signs throughout the site and providing recommendations for the content and purpose of each sign that is specific to its location and surroundings. And although the public realm wayfinding will primarily be static, we are working with Metro to integrate their transit-focused digital signage into the overall plan for all public realm wayfinding.

What types of elements might be part of a district-wide branding and wayfinding program?

There are a wide variety of features large and small from gateways to direction signs. The important thing is to consider the system holistically as a kit-of-parts. This allows for implementation in phases if this is required for budgetary reasons. A gateway doesn’t have to look exactly like the wayfinding family – it can be public art, a landscape feature, etc. – but the important thing is that it creates a sense of place while reflecting and enhancing the spirit and energy of the area. Then, within and throughout the district, wayfinding should allow for a seamless experience for people whether they’re walking or in cars, or shifting from one mode of transit to another. Wayfinding signage should be placed at key decision points to clearly guide people, and be integrated into the overall design of the environment – coordinated with sidewalk pavers, plantings, lights, benches and other design elements. While these features should be highly visible and recognizable, a good system is often hardly noticed because it’s so successfully integrated into the experience.

What should a city or district think about as they start this kind of project?

Think about the program’s scale. Where are you taking people? What are your key destinations? Usually we’re connecting people to public spaces and buildings, but are there any private destinations that can and should be considered? This process starts to inform the types of locations of signs, and our user experience research helps to map out individual journeys, for all types of users, to guarantee that the experience will be seamless.

Then from a design perspective, we start to consider what are the city’s or district’s assets that set it apart from other places. Is it a transit-oriented district, or is pedestrian or bike access a strong selling point? What is the local history or legacy? We can involve the community to gather stories about the place – this is a critical step in the process – and then these components can all inform the brand strategy and visual identity.

Why are district-wide branding and wayfinding programs important and necessary? What are the benefits?

Branding and wayfinding are a critical part of an overall placemaking strategy. The branding helps to build off a place’s past, present and future, creating positive and memorable associations. A comprehensive wayfinding system that can build into a city or district brand further enhances the visitor experience. Seamlessly guiding a first-time visitor to transit, parking, destinations and amenities creates a sense of ease and comfort. Google Maps can only get you so far. Once you have exited an unfamiliar city’s parking structure or transit station, being able to orient yourself quickly via a landmark, heads-up map or directional sign can be a relief.

What programs are you most proud to have designed or participated in?

It was exciting to participate in the creation of West Hollywood’s vision for the Sunset Strip sign district, before I joined Altitude. Its legacy of being at the forefront of billboard advertising laid the groundwork for our opportunity to take off-site signage and build it out in 3D, beyond perimeters, with innovative materials and content, to showcase West Hollywood’s creativity.

I’m also proud of the Cabrillo Way Marina project at the Port of Los Angeles, which I also worked on prior to joining Altitude. This was part of the phased Bridge to Breakwater Master Plan implemented by the Port. The design guidelines developed for the master plan have successfully outlined a palette of everything from guard rail materials to wayfinding signs. At the same time, it has allowed for flexibility to create an overlay of placemaking features that are specific to each site along the Port’s waterfront. I was able to work with the team on the design of storytelling paving features, shade structures, site furnishings and public art selection all inspired by the materials, forms, patterns and words that are a part of the world of sailing.

These types of public realm design projects are exciting, and incredibly fulfilling, because we can see people using and enjoying the spaces we’ve helped to design. That enjoyment is fun to witness!