Brands are applying design thinking to promote a new index of social etiquette.

As health considerations continue to change the way we inhabit and move through public spaces, brands are enlisting designers to help encourage safe behavior.

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Daniel Meigs for Way Forward Signage Co.

Leading the charge are Base Design and Hastings Architecture. In July, they unveiled Way Forward Signage Co., a collection of elegant and sophisticated signs for the workplace. The idea for Way Forward Signage Co. came about when Nashville-based Hastings Architecture—an essential business—was preparing to reopen in May. “We looked around and we had these bad, temporary signs that were essentially handwritten on static cling material, that sort of thing,” David Bailey, principal at Hastings, tells Wunderman Thompson Intelligence. “We needed a well-designed approach.”

So Hastings tapped global creative branding and strategy firm Base Design, whose work includes the branding and wayfinding design for JFK Terminal 4, to help create signage that was in line with Hastings’ identity and offices.

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Top: Eric Laignel for Hastings Architecture. Bottom: Daniel Meigs for Way Forward Signage Co.
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The primary objectives were twofold, Bailey explains: first, to create a clear, concise and universally recognizable visual language for appropriate behavior during a global pandemic; and second, to not be messaged in fear. “We made a conscious decision to not only make the visual language and the iconography very simple and universal, but [also] to be optimistic and uplifting,” Geoff Cook, a partner at Base Design, tells Wunderman Thompson Intelligence. “It needs to be aesthetically pleasing, it needs to deliver information; but it can, at the same time, engage people emotionally.”

The collaboration is jumpstarting the market for consistent corporate design in the era of COVID-19. Cook describes Way Forward Signage Co. as “a new type of signage company.” In the past, he explains, companies “have made signs based on certain specific sets of information that they need to convey. Way Forward responds to larger, singular issues—today, that could be a pandemic, tomorrow, that could be on a military base or it could be when we all go back to organizing in large groups. It’s really about thinking about specific needs on a higher conceptual level and then developing design solutions in function of that.”

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Daniel Meigs for Way Forward Signage Co.

For Hastings, these designs have been invaluable in creating a safe, respectful and functional workspace. “It has given everybody confidence in how we’re occupying our space,” Bailey says. “It helps us organize the way in which we circulate through the space, the number [of people] in a room…it’s helped create an environment where we can work together.”

Beyond aesthetics, projects like this one are crucial for creating standardized safety protocols. “It’s absolutely essential that the visual language is coherent,” Cook emphasizes. Bailey agrees: by creating “a universally recognizable vocabulary,” the signs inform “how we communicate.”

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Daniel Meigs for Way Forward Signage Co.
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Indeed, the signs function as the modern equivalent to traffic signs for indoor spaces, codifying mobility patterns and cueing appropriate behavior. Like traffic signs—which, Bailey observes, have remained largely unchanged over the past several decades—Way Forward Signage Co. introduces a perennial design model. “These kind of feel like that as well. They’ve got that clarity of message, and a durability and staying power because of that simplicity.”

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Daniel Meigs for Way Forward Signage Co.

Some may dismiss design as an ornamental nice-to-have, but it plays an important role in public settings; it can help create order and signal acceptable behavior to promote public safety.

So why haven’t we seen more examples of systematized signage in the age of COVID-19? “There’s certainly going to be increased demand as people realize that we’re a long way from being out of this,” Cook says. “The world’s largest companies are still addressing how to get people back to work safely,” he notes, pointing to “AT&T, JP Morgan, Google and Facebook, [who] have all announced that employees will not be going back to the office until the middle of next year at the earliest.” But as offices and public spaces eventually reopen, he anticipates that “the demand for these types of systems will only increase.”

It’s clear that brands are starting to outgrow initial makeshift and stopgap communication solutions. As pandemic etiquette becomes cemented in culture, expect to see brands and designers continuing to evolve the visual language of health.

Main image courtesy of Daniel Meigs for Way Forward Signage Co.