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Rijk Boerma on the newly opened National Military Museum

What’s the key to good signage?
It’s best to participate in the process from an early stage, before a building or public location is designed or completed. The earlier we are involved in the process, the easier it is to use ‘natural wayfinding’. This takes two things into consideration: the building or premises, and the process users need to go through. If these are well-matched, less signage and therefore fewer signs are required. We don’t necessarily want signs, and our clients certainly don’t.

Visitors want to find their way effortlessly. Anything that causes a delay affects their valuation negatively. Not being able to find the toilet, for example, or waiting at the cash register, or searching for an exit. Research done by the museum shows that the longer people have to wait, the lower their valuation of the collection is. I myself, for instance, have never visited the Anne Frank House. I often cycle past it, but there are always such long lines. That stops me from visiting. Which is something to think about, right?

What is involved in the design of good signage?
Signage, or wayfinding as we prefer to call it, is a tool and not an end in itself. We can make pretty signs, but that’s not the point. Ultimately, the aim is to draw attention to the collection of a museum; make sure that patients can locate their doctors; ensure that people don’t miss their flights. Initially, people try to find their way by following their instincts. They follow light, for instance. People in a parking garage automatically walk towards the light – where, ideally, the exit is located. We have to work with this first of all. Beautiful or not, if something doesn’t work, it’s worthless.

What is typical of your design for the NMM?
Clients often want to distinguish themselves by the design of their wayfinding. That’s understandable, but how do the visitors feel? We have to follow up on what users want, use and understand. To make sure they know where they stand. Of course we pay attention to the identity of the client. For the National Military Museum, we chose yellow for the signage – a striking colour to offset the military camouflage colours of the collection. Wayfinding should stand out.

What is it like to collaborate with a construction company?
The designs of the museum and the route were largely done, but there were still lots of possibilities. The basic idea was that the collection has to receive its proper share of attention. You look at target groups and decide what information goes where. Many things are clear, the route itself is in many cases self-evident. Basic needs always have to be pointed out: Where can you buy a ticket? Where is the toilet? Where can you order a cup of coffee?

During the project, we often had to deal with the architects of the building and the landscape. As designers, they don’t have a problem finding their way: they’re simply very good at it. I, myself, do badly, and that helps me in my profession. It ensures that I have an eye for the users. During one meeting, for instance, it was suggested that we use fewer and smaller signs. But you can’t just do that. You have to understand this profession. If visitors cannot find what they are looking for, they will get annoyed and this will affect their valuation of the museum and the collection negatively.

So people won’t get lost in the museum?
We’ll have to see. It’s not just about the signs. Signage doesn’t make a difficult situation any easier. If the route through the museum doesn’t work, you can’t blame the signage, in my opinion. The museum has highlights that visitors want to immediately see once they are inside. Were you to prevent them from doing so, people would probably follow the route as it is intended, through the theme hall. But screening off pieces that you think people ought not to visit first is not an option in this grand and open building.

Thanks to Heijmans for using this content.

Read this interview on heijmans.nl (in Dutch)