After a half dozen years of trying to develop a wayfinding signage project, Evanston officials are on the verge of again seeking outside help.

City staff told the Economic Development Committee last week that while feedback about recently installed test signs was “generally positive,” most people think the font size used is too small to be read while driving.

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said she agreed that the size of the type is too small.

But the overall size of the signs now being used is the largest that the city can produce in house on its existing equipment.

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said the staff has gotten good in recent years at working with online services like Google and Waze to update the data they use.

For instance, he said, when the name of the road adjoining the former Shure Bros. property on Hartrey Avenue was updated to Autobarn Place to reflect the property’s new owner, city staff was able to get that change made on the mapping services.

And, with the growing reliance on such online tools, a staff memo suggested that “motorists’ reliance on physical wayfinding signage is falling dramatically.”

But Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said that as “an analog person in a digital world,” he wasn’t convinced relying on the online services was sufficient.

Wynne said that the process of having a consultant come up with a complete new signage system — tried a few years ago — turned into “a quagmire that we shouldn’t get into again.”

But she suggested that seeking more limited consulting help on “scaling up” the current program could be a good idea.

Bobkiewicz said, “There are a limited number of firms around the country that do this kind of work,” and suggested he could have staff prepare a request for proposals and then seek City Council approval to move forward.

One idea not addressed at the meeting was making the wording of the signs more concise so that larger type could be used on a sign with the same overall dimensions.

For example, the sign pictured above provides directions to:

  • Northwestern U.
  • Downtown Evanston
  • Public Parking

If instead it said:

  • Campus
  • Downtown
  • Parking

the lettering could be made much more readable at a distance.

Got other ideas for better wayfinding signage? Feel free to suggest them in comments on this story.

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Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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  1. I hope better than the last time

    When they put-up the last batch seven to ten years ago, many were pointing in the wrong direction, to routes no one would take if they had the least idea of where things were and to sites that were so far away from the signs that they were meaningless–e.g. signs to Loveless Park Lincoln and Asbury.

    When I called the city about the wrong direction signs–I gave them the intersection, what the sign said, where posted, it took three calls to them to get it right—they could not figure it out even when they went there.

    1. Consult the community first.
      To most, downtown is considered to be in Chicago. The progressive folks of Evanston referred to the east side as “up East” or what now would be consdiered Uptown (the upscale district). Try explaining the one way streets, cul de sacs, streets that end and pick up in another part of town. How about an option to call 311 and let them tell you to refer to your GPS or where you could obtain a map. Or use pictures, i.e. purple cats for NU, orange and blue for Wildkits ETHS, etc. Wally > give us a break on the consultant fees.

    2. wayfinding sign

      The author is absolutely right about shortening the names on the wayfinding sign and increasing the letter size. Probably the font size needs to quadruple. 

      There are sources the designer should have consulted before presenting this sign, which does not come close to meeting standards. ANSI and MUTCD have done legibility and distance studies to determine the size of fonts on highway signs depending on speed, and there has been lots of research into the best, most readable font (Clearview, Meta) to use on highway signs.

      The colors are also wrong. Reverse type (white type, or in this case icons, the arrows) is the hardest to read. Also backed up by research. Why in the world they thought that was a good idea, I can’t imagine. The arrows are so thin and the blue is so light that there’s almost no distinction between the two colors.  Visual difficulty is the number one disability, according to ADA. Add fog/smoke, or dusk/dawn, and this sign could not be read even by people who have good eyesight. 

      Back to the drawing board. If they can find a designer who either knows what they’re doing or is willing to do the work to find out, so much the better.

  2. Ridge / Green Bay signs

    On northbound Ridge at Green Bay, the remodeled lanes are not clearly marked. The ritght lane is continue north on Ridge (with a “up” arrow) and is acceptable, but the center and left lane both indicate curves, as if it is two lanes onto Green Bay. However, the left lane suddenly becomes a left turn only lane for Emerson as you go around the curve. To go up Green Bay, it should be the middle late only. I have seen cars “trapped” in the left lane who want to go up Green Bay.

    The sign for the approach is too small and the left lane should be marked “left turn only”. 


  3. Signs? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Signs

    There are some terrific FREE wayfinding maps and apps available for smartphones. People heading to Evanston, who aren’t familiar with the area, should use one of those recources rather than expect to find signs. 

    • Signs are costly and require ongoing maintenance, not to mention the cost of hiring a qualified wayfinding consultant.
    • Signs are waste of taxpayer money, as there are FREE apps that are far superior to any type of signage.
    • There is an element of danger when people are rubbernecking; searching for or trying to read signs, instead of paying attention to traffic.
    • Signs are visual clutter. i.e. an eyesore.
    • There are too many signs already. People are overloaded with signs and don’t bother to read any of them, except stop signs and street names.
    • Inevitably, road work, emergencies, etc. obviate informational signs and lead to confusion. In contrast, apps immediately recalculate and provide on the fly, turn-by-turn instructions.

    Virtually anyone visiting Evanston has a smart phone and app. There is no argument in favor of signs, unless you are selling signs.

    I urge the City Council to save the money and instead put links on the City’s website encouraging people to use apps. Most of them are doing so anyway.

    1. Road Signs are Necessary

      Not everyone has some sort of maping device in their car.  It is important that drivers pay attention to the road and not cellphones or other devices that are a distraction from the road; street signs are not.  And if someone is a first time visitor, why make it difficult for them to navigate the city?  We want people to like our city not feel like we could not be bothered to put up a few directional signs.

      1. Amen

        It is illegal to be using a hand held device in your hand and just as distracting to look at if it mounted then at a sign. Are all driving skills being taken over by technology? Looking at signs is still part of the Illinois drivers test. 

  4. Tree branches block signs

    The biggest problems I have with some of the signs the City puts up. As we all know there is a variety of them. The City fails to prune the tree branches that block them.

    1. Call 311

      I recently called 311 and left a message about branches blocking the view of oncoming traffic at the SE corner of Colfax and Crawford and within 2 days the City trimmed the trees, and it’s a much safer intersection.

      The person I spoke with at the 311 service was very helpful and the City’s responsiveness to address this potential problem is very much appreciated.

      Just give them a call.

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