By ALICE RAWSTHORN
NY Times Published: October 21, 2012
VIENNA — Walking through Vienna Airport recently, I noticed something odd about the signs. It wasn’t that they were misleading, on the contrary, they seemed to relay the right information in the right places, but that they looked slightly blurred. The characters and symbols on most airport signage are crisply defined, but some of these signs appeared to have been drawn by hand.
The oddness is intentional. The designer of the signs, Ruedi Baur, devised the blurred effect as part of his efforts to make Vienna Airport seem different from other airports at a time when most of them look pretty much the same. A fierce critic of the identikit school of airport design, he was determined to ensure that his signage reflected the spirit of Vienna. “The sociologist Marc Augé has described airports as ‘nonplaces,’ not destinations, but somewhere in between,” he said. “My job was to create a system of signs that makes this airport a place, not a nonplace.”
Why not, you might think, especially as the project seemed so promising when Mr. Baur started work on it eight years ago. Based in Paris, he had recently completed an innovative, widely praised signage scheme for Cologne-Bonn Airport and was commissioned to do the same in Vienna where the airport was to double in size by constructing a new building and renovating an old one. The senior management there was sympathetic to his goals, as were the architects, Itten Brechbühl and Baumschlager Eberle.
The first phase of expansion was completed this summer when the new building opened, replete with Mr. Baur’s signs. But the project has not gone as smoothly as he had hoped. New personnel joined the airport’s management during construction and decided to change aspects of the original architectural scheme, which affected the signage, and to drop two important elements of his planned system. He has also had to modify some of the signs following complaints from people with impaired vision amid an online rumpus that his artfully blurred signs are not legible.
Whatever else an airport signage system succeeds in being, it must be clear. If the signs do not communicate the relevant information quickly and easily to everyone who needs it, they will have failed, but pulling this off is tougher than it sounds.
Airports are often large, labyrinthine spaces in which thousands of people need to be guided to particular places at specific times. Some of them will be familiar with the airport, but others will be there for the first time. They may well speak different languages, and range from veteran flyers to nervous ingénues and terrified flight-phobia sufferers. Somehow, the signs need to guide each of them through the building so efficiently that they never worry about getting lost, as well as conforming to a minefield of safety regulations and competing against a blizzard of advertising imagery.
No wonder that the first wave of modern airport signage systems, in the 1960s and 1970s, were characterized by discipline and uniformity. Often, they were the work of gifted design “despots” like Benno Wissing, the Dutch designer whose 1967 signage for Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam was renowned for its lucid typography and rigorous color coding. To avoid confusion, he banned any other signage in his chosen shades of yellow and green from Schiphol, including Hertz’s car rental signs.
Clarity was also the goal of the Swiss designer Adrian Frutiger at the turn of the 1970s, when he developed a signage system for Charles de Gaulle Airport near Paris. He designed a special typeface in which each letter could be read from different angles by distracted passengers while racing through crowded terminals.
Like Wissing’s signs at Schiphol, Mr. Frutiger’s scheme at Charles de Gaulle was a wonderful example of design that fulfilled its function sensitively and elegantly. Sadly, it has since been neglected, but Wissing’s work has been lovingly maintained and updated by the Dutch designer Paul Mijksenaar. Other airports have tried to achieve the same lucidity, but have generally settled for less sophisticated designs, which have produced indistinguishably bland signs that make it hard to tell one airport from another.
There are rare exceptions, like the elegant signs devised by the Swiss designer Ruedi Rüegg for Zurich Airport until his death last year, but experiments, like Mr. Baur’s work at Cologne-Bonn Airport, are unusual. The signs there feature pictograms seemingly drawn by hand in a deliberately naïve style, which seems distinctive in the context of an airport, and so familiar that you feel as though you have been there before.
Mr. Baur sought to achieve a similar effect at Vienna with the blurred signage that looks as if someone has scribbled on it in thick pencil, specially created pictograms with light shadows and a series of delicately translucent glass paneled signs.
He believes that these “subtle, playful effects” give the airport a distinctive character, together with the choice of typeface, Fedra Sans, which he commissioned from the Slovakian designer Peter Bil’ak for a previous project and contains all of the Central European accents, making it very apt for use in the Austrian capital.
Some of the glass panels have proved too subtle for people with impaired vision, who have complained that they are not clear enough. Mr. Baur says the problem was caused by the late changes to the architectural program, which left some of the panels inadequately lit. He and his team are now trying to rectify that.
But he is less optimistic about the chances of persuading the airport to reinstate two lost components of his original scheme: a panel by the baggage carousels welcoming passengers to Vienna with Austrian-German greetings and his pièce de résistance, a giant LED screen that would have traced the progress of flights as they approached the airport.
Does his grand plan work without them? I can’t pretend to have spotted explicit references to Vienna on the airport signs, but they were discernibly different to the “identikit” variety: definitely odd, but agreeably so.