Placemaking Signage – bringing it all together

Placemaking happens in one-time events (designing a downtown plan, landscaping a park) and it is also repetitive, continuous and, like housework, invisible unless poorly done.


Placemaking: The Art and Practice of Building Communities


Dating back to developments within urban planning during the 1960s in the US, placemaking began as part of a movement to design and build spaces that were human-centric rather than prioritising cars or businesses. In an address to a luncheon group called, coincidentally, Placemakers, architect and one of the founders of architecture group HTA, Bernard Hunt, summarised the issue as follows:


“We have theories, specialisms, regulations, exhortations, demonstration projects. We have planners. We have highway engineers. We have mixed use, mixed tenure, architecture, community architecture, urban design, neighbourhood strategy. But what seems to have happened is that we have simply lost the art of placemaking; or, put another way, we have lost the simple art of placemaking. We are good at putting up buildings but we are bad at making places.”


What has developed over the last half century is a robust body of academic research that, in one way or another echoes the following, from Vol 4, No 2 (2019): Public Space in the New Urban Agenda: Research into Implementation:


“[Using] a planning approach that fosters sense of place as an out-come of the community’s participation in the process has the potential to create long-term benefits that can serve the community in diverse ways in the future.”


One of the key ingredients to creating spaces that are able to foster that sense of place is placemaking signage.


What is placemaking signage?


Placemaking signage is quite a broad umbrella term for a huge number of signage types that are created with the intent to blend purpose and creativity to develop engaging, informative and, importantly, hyper-relevant signage that “fosters a sense of place” for both residents and visitors. These signs aren’t just describing a place, they aim to reflect the area in which they’re placed and communicate something deeper about a place.


In many ways, signage has always contributed to a sense of place – and various social and cultural movements have adapted signage to meet creative and social ideals. At each ends of the spectrum, for example, you have:


  • The Bauhaus architectural movement of the 1920s which stripped previously common ornamentation and design-flourishes to meet the sleeker, mechanised feel of Bauhaus architecture.
  • The art-deco movement, which capitalised on the advent of increasingly cheap and available neon lighting to create the bright and imposing signage that eventually gave Las Vegas the look it still has in the popular imagination.


However, the shift in thought during the mid-late 20th century we mentioned earlier, also led to a more conscious approach to incorporating signage into the identity of a place – and this has expanded from architectural projects to sporting and cultural events, metropolitan areas, in regeneration efforts and much more besides.


Varieties of placemaking signage


Honestly, it’s difficult to give an exhaustive list of the many varieties – there are about as many types of placemaking signage as there are places. That being said, we’re going to look at some of the most common and effective types and their roles in placemaking.



Dating back to at least the 17th century, bunting holds a very particular place in the hearts of UK citizens – who will commonly associate the small, often triangular, flags with traditional festivities and national celebrations. However, in addition to its use during fetes and jubilees, bunting is used globally as a placemaking device which can add a touch of colour – as strings of brightly coloured flags are strung across streets to elevate festivities.



Again, traditionally associated with national celebrations but also commonly used at sporting events, parades and festivals to show support for teams and causes. Flags are often used in placemaking to represent the inclusivity of an area, and can be a welcoming addition to a space – showing its connection to other countries, cultures and peoples.



Banners have been around for thousands of years, tracing their origins back to Roman vexillum – and anyone that was even briefly caught up in Game of Thrones will be aware of the term as representing a statement of loyalty. In fact armies throughout history have often been said to fight ‘under the banner of’ a noble or state. In the modern day, they serve a similar purpose, and their role in placemaking is often to loudly proclaim a commitment to a place, person or cause (though they are also an excellent method of advertising and, in China, red banners are often used to convey motivational messages).



Probably the most famous example of lettering as a part of urban placemaking dates back to a 2004 marketing campaign on behalf of the city of Amsterdam. The I amsterdam sign, which was originally located near the Rijksmuseum, with a second version at Schipol airport, was placemaking as marketing – with Amsterdam Partners offering the following as rationale:


Amsterdam’s strongest asset is its people.

The people who live here, who work here, who study or visit here.

The people of Amsterdam are Amsterdam.

We are Amsterdam.

I amsterdam


Since that campaign, however, such lettering installations have appeared in dozens of international cities and events, with versions at the Glastonbury Festival, LiverpoolONE (the shopping, retail and leisure complex), and in Barcelona, Toronto, Paris and many more – becoming more like placemaking as public art.


Logos & Crests

Whether it’s to celebrate renowned businesses, sports teams or manufacturers, or simply to proudly display a place’s own logo or crest, their use in placemaking is about making and emphasising connections between a place and the people that live there or visit. No matter how the logos are displayed, they are there to inspire a feeling of pride about a place and a feeling of connection to it.


Wayfinding & Directional Signs

While most exterior wayfinding signage is standardised, there are plenty of placemaking opportunities with wayfinding and directional signage in the interiors of buildings, on private land and in parks and nature reserves – all of which will use creative methods of communication through design to convey messages about the place, to evoke particular feelings and inspire desirable behaviour. In these cases, what makes such signage successful is as much the presentation of the signage as it is about what is actually written on it.


Digital Signage

Obviously a very versatile variety of signage due to its ability to change frequently without needing to be fully replaced, digital signage can therefore be a placemaking goldmine – allowing for playfulness, short and long-term campaigns, advertising and a host of other vital types of placemaking messaging and imagery. Digital signage has also mostly taken over from neon as a less energy intensive method of high impact advertising.


Map Boards & Educational Signs

Whether it’s for a shopping complex, a park, art exhibit, museum or any of a host of other uses, map boards and educational signs can play an important part in placemaking. From the material it’s made from to its design, the lettering used, colours and a thousand other considerations, all communicate not just information about the place or object, but also a large amount of emotional and subconscious information. 


How placemaking signage works


Like all placemaking efforts, placemaking signage is about blending in with the environment, but also about trying to build connections between people and place. That might seem a lot to ask from signage, but think how much of your interaction with your environment is with information sources and design (to quote US art director Paul Rand “Everything is design! Everything!”) and you begin to see how important signage is to placemaking.




The psychology of signage has been studied in enormous detail and experimental studies have shown it capable of improving health outcomes, satisfaction with service and even (according to the wonderfully named study Getting Wasted at WOMADelaide: The Effect of Signage on Waste Disposal) on the tendency of festival goers to properly categorise varieties of refuse and dispose of it accordingly.


One of the reasons signage is literally everywhere, is that it is effective both in changing behaviours and in improving experiences – when well executed. The following, for example, from a research paper titled Signage as a tool for behavioral change: Direct and indirect routes to understanding the meaning of a sign makes clear the huge range of public policy areas in which signage has been effective:


A body of research has shown that signs are effective in changing behavior in a variety of domains (e.g., road traffic [25], health behaviors [610], and environmental protection [1120]). For example, in regard to road traffic—one domain heavily reliant on communication via signs—signs have been found to be successful in increasing safety belt usage [2], decreasing speeding [3], reducing deer-vehicle collisions [4], and reducing conflicts between pedestrian and motor vehicle drivers [5]. However, other domains have also benefited from the use of signage to initiate behavior change. For example, signs used in the health domain encouraged safer sex by promoting condoms [6], sun safety [7], correct lifting posture to prevent back injuries [8], stair use instead of elevator use [9], and protection against hearing damage [10]. In the domain of environmental protection, signs have been shown to be effective in a reduction of littering and an increase in recycling in a variety of settings, for example, in parking garages [11], football stadiums [12], cafeterias [13, 14], education and office environments [15, 16], as well as water and electricity use [1720].


Signage exists, as the literature often makes clear, as polycoded communication – it aims to influence behaviour on multiple levels. This is why signage works so well from a placemaking perspective – so long as purpose, function and mission are carefully considered and aligned. While dealing primarily with signage for commercial projects, the following, from Urban Signage Design: Problems and Prospects (IOP Conference Series: Materials Science and Engineering) makes such considerations clear when it states:


A well-organized urban environment contributes to the economic and cultural development of the city, the preservation of its identity and the assertion of its positive image […] In order to successfully solve the problems of urban signage design in the context of urban environment design of each particular city, an interdisciplinary approach is necessary […] The solution to the problems described in the article touches upon economic, political, ecological, cultural and aesthetic aspects that can not be considered in isolation. Therefore, at the stage of developing a design project for a commercial enterprise’s sign as a polycode text all the components – architectural, artistic, linguistic, sociocultural, aesthetic and legal – must be taken into account in order to achieve a reasonable balance.


Signage is more than just words and/or pictures, it communicates with us on a deeper psychological level – not least because we are conditioned from an early age to look to signs as signifiers of authority. Given proper research and design, signage can serve not just to convey information but to elevate a place and build communities.




While we may wish to put the Covid pandemic firmly behind us, there is one aspect which perfectly demonstrates the power of signage in the building of community feeling. Around the world, in windows, on roads, on governmental signage and private murals, the hard work of front-line workers was praised – with the rainbow becoming a common graphical representation of the UKs gratitude to NHS workers specifically.


This isn’t the only example that people in the UK will be familiar with, however, and anyone that has holidayed in or even driven through Wales and Cornwall will have seen the use of the Cymru and Kernow languages which are used in addition to English to emphasise the unique heritage of the area. 


While these two examples represent a bottom up and top down approach respectively, a fantastic study out of the University of British Columbia, which can be found here details the opportunity for a collaborative approach to signage which engaged the community to produce signage that was both engaging, but which also sought to build community at all stages – including interviews with stakeholders which fed into signage design:


In order to make a lasting impact on visitors, however, it is important that signs are designed in aesthetically-pleasing and engaging ways. According to a study conducted by Wandersee and Clary (2007), interpretive signage has key elements that correspond with the effectiveness of the signs. Key elements of signs included number of words, number of sentences, average number of words per sentence, reading level, visuals, and frequency (Wandersee & Clary, 2007). After a detailed analysis, the researchers created a list of specific criteria for creating effective signage (Figure 2). 


Following the presentation of such criteria and interviews with stakeholders, this information was fed into a series of mock-ups which went through further stages of stakeholder feedback. While the study was not designed to go as far as implementation, it was clear that such a thorough effort to engage the community was both welcomed by the community and also potentially transformational in how they viewed the space.


Town planning


Concerned with the growth and development of an urban area, town planning is one of the key instances that should always retain a focus on placemaking. After all, it is a sense of local pride and community that, at least in part, powers the success of urban areas, and placemaking has helped to contribute to reducing crime, building community (as above) and growing tourism. However, as the paper Planning as Placemaking: Tensions of Scale, Culture and Identity points out, this comes with its own difficulties:


Beyond the economic development interests of a municipality, place construction reflects cultural interests at multiple scales of action across a range of venues; however, the influence of the built environment can limit our ability to understand locality and the conscious moments, events and actions that transform space into place (De Certeau 1984; Appadurai 1996). Placemaking has a fixity of scale by nature of the spatial or jurisdictional boundaries it targets that, at times, are in tension with cultural interests occurring in overlapping scales of influence. Further, places are animated and shaped by various dimensions connecting the objects in an environment, including concentric areas of affiliation, social networks, history and unseen layers of memory (Buell, 2001; Throgmorton, 2003). What some individuals see as dilapidated buildings, others regard as placeholders of memory or hope. Neighborhoods perceived as distressed are held together (or not) by more than physical structures. The central thread running through these arguments is that placemaking does not occur in a cultural vacuum and is always undertaken in relation to the realms of cultural practice and human experience. As development shapes the built environment of a city, planners and urban designers seek to legitimate these actions by infusing them with local qualities that will attract a creative class seeking authentic, place-based experiences. 


As has been mentioned throughout, placemaking – and especially placemaking signage – is about semiotics as much as design, about culture as much as communication. However, what can be seen in the case study of a placemaking project in Roanoke (North Carolina, US) which is detailed in the same paper,  is a failure to act holistically and with proper community involvement. 


By failing to properly engage all community stakeholders, through failing to live up to expectations, the project became fragmented and a source of community dissatisfaction rather than cohesion. Lessons like this need to be learned – especially in signage, which will not only build trust and a sense of place within the community, but also with visitors.


Celebrations & Events


Whether it’s jubilees, World Cup parties, comedy festivals or anything in between, most cities in the UK, and therefore most people, will be aware of the community building potential of community celebrations and events. What most people overlook, however, is the role that information and signage plays in these events. Whether it’s in wayfinding signage to help audiences find their way between venues, the digital hoardings that advertise upcoming performances, or the bunting strung between houses as neighbours arrange every table on the street in the middle of the road to prepare for (if you’re an England fan) the almost inevitable quarter final exit on penalties.


An article for the International Journal of Event Management puts it like this:


The conviviality associated with partying disrupts mundane social relations and engages diverse communities in placemaking. People playfully engage with one another, performing and reinforcing community and place values in the environment outside their homes.


Signage helps to reinforce this sense of place and, therefore, helps to build this sense of community. Whether that’s a top-down effort – such as The Edinburgh Fringe, or something bottom up like a street party, there is always signage and symbolism that contributes to the placemaking abilities of such events.


What is placemaking signage made from?


The short answer is: pretty much whatever material suits the requirements of the project and the likely duration of its requirement. However, what should be noted is that material is almost as important as information when it comes to placemaking signage. While dibond composite materials are a durable option (and a specialism of ours), it may not be right for a project which seeks to emphasise environmental or ecological concerns. 


As with all things in such placemaking projects, it is vital that every consideration is given to selecting the right materials for the installation – which is why we always look to undertake a consultation with placemaking clients to ensure that we fully understand the aims of the project and can deliver an end result that properly aligns with placemaking ambitions the signage is intended to complement.


Why use placemaking signage?


There are hundreds of reasons, both academic and artistic, to use placemaking signage – but the one that most often gets brought up is about community. Placemaking signage is about using the power of design to celebrate a place and everything it means to the people that live there and the people that visit there. That’s the reason to use placemaking signage – though it has proven benefits in reducing crime and improving local pride, it’s first and foremost about turning a place and a group of people into a community.


Final thoughts


Placemaking can be political, it can be cultural, it can be artistic, it can be celebratory – it can be all of these things and more, but to do that, it needs to be done properly. That’s where having the right partner for your placemaking signage is vital. If you’d like to speak to us for some expert advice about your project, contact us today.