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Sign Judgment: ADA Guidelines vs. Designer Aesthetics – A Struggle for Balance and Working Solutions

Long before President Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law in1992, which mandated that fixed room signage be readable by the visually-impaired, architects and interior designers have been telling sign companies something along these lines: “Don’t let your sign mess up my beautifully-designed space.” That statement has probably been phrased 50 different ways over the years and one has to imagine that the ancient Egyptians or Roman stone carvers probably heard the same thing from the design architects of the time as they began to carve a symbol or phrase into a priceless piece of marble or stone that took a year or more to extract from a quarry. Like any conflict throughout history, most problems can be avoided or solved by both parties being able to communicate need and comprising at times to help prevent fiascos from occurring.

Now that the 2010 ADA guidelines have been adopted, environmental graphic designers, interior designers and architects now have a new tool to use in creating ADA signage – they can use tone on tone coloring for the raised characters and Braille and replicate the ADA message in sufficiently contrasted color on the panel above. Eureka! Now all of our problems of material specification and technique are solved, right? Not really.

Take for example the case of the traveling man who stumbled into the women’s restroom in an airport by mistake. As you can see from the photo, he is smiling and pointing at the reason why he wandered into the wrong restroom – the contrast was not sufficient on the sign because the designer specified a highly reflective material – in this case, brushed aluminum – with a white silkscreened message. We’re not sure if he smiling out of embarrassment or because he got to peak into a world he’s never seen before, but what we do know is that he made the mistake because:

a)  his previous airport experiences trained him to look for the men’s room entrance on the right-hand side

b)  he was in a hurry and not paying close attention (because he needed to use the restroom)

c)  and as he was in motion and the ambient and fluorescent light inside the airport blended together and reflected off the aluminum surface, which completely washed out the white silkscreened message.

Taking all of the evidence into consideration, we rule that the fault lies primarily at the feet of the designer but the sign company takes some responsibility for not showing the designer a better way to bring the designer’s sign concept to life. Here is how this fiasco could be prevented.

Value-Engineering of Materials and Techniques

The designer wanted a modern look – made from glass and steel – for the interior space, and signage had to match that look. No problem. There are materials and finishes that can keep this look without compromising on clear communication. The sign company and designer probably should have used photo-chemically acid-etched zinc with a filled paint color for the background. The resulting silver face sign would have dimensional depth, which would have allowed for a small, dark shadow to break through the lighting overload that occurred from the light reflecting off the shiny material surface.

Don’t Trust the Computer Screen

We all know this but so many times designers take a leap of faith that what they see on the computer screen in Illustrator will work in the real world. Most of the time, you can get away with what you see on the screen, but when it comes to any metallic material or paint finish, get a sample and view it in the actual lighting conditions of the space.

Use the LRV Contrast formula

The LRV is not 100% perfect all of the time, but you can trust it for 90% of the jobs you do. Remember, ADA guidelines say that the message has to have a minimum of a 70% contrast from the background or be reasonable visible. That last part allows you to dip into the 68% contrast range when the light and material allow it to work. For an easy to use calculator, click here. If you are comfortable with doing mathematical equations, use the following formula:

Contrast = ( B1 – B2 ) x 100 / B1
B1 = light reflectance value (LRV) of lighter area
B2 = light reflectance value (LRV) of darker area

Our experience has shown that the 70% figure is not a magic number. Contrasts of a few percentage points below the recommended figure, depending on the colors chosen, can often yield legible results.

Tell us of your experiences or how you resolved an ADA vs. design aesthetic issue, or tell us what other steps you recommended for avoiding ADA fiascos.

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