San Diego

Downtown unscrambled: New signs point way

SAN DIEGO, CA – If Downtown San Diego puzzles you as you hunt for the Star of India or Petco Park, John Bosio hopes a $1.9 million “wayfinding” sign system clears the way.He’s the principal of MERJE Environments & Experiences, a Pennsylvania graphic design company that came up with 227 signs and markers, which debuted last month to take the guesswork out of getting around downtown, both for pedestrians and motorists.

“In the old system (installed in 2000) there were 253 vehicular signs and 18 pedestrian signs and all across the total, you were only directed to 10 destinations,” he said. The new system has many more pedestrian-oriented signs and directions to about 60 destinations. A guidebook prepared for the downtown maintenance districts — which are responsible for the signs — lays out the materials and specifications for updates. Bosio’s company partnered with Rick Engineering under a Civic San Diego contract adopted in 2009. But completion was stalled by the end to redevelopment agencies in 2011.

In the meantime, the onset of digital maps on smartphones would seem to have made streets signs unnecessary. Gary Smith, president of the San Diego Residents Group, called the new signs a great help to tourists, but he thought many are probably unnecessary given the widespread use of digital mapping. However, people who know how people move about a city think differently. “Our idea is to get people to look up and feel comfortable that they’re going in the right direction and have the sense that they can explore and experience the city (without looking down at a map or a phone),” said Martin Flores, Rick’s principal urban designer.

The design team mapped all existing signs and then pinpointed which could be eliminated and where the new ones would go. The job did not include changing out city street and freeway signs. They added 25 kiosks that include maps of downtown, five neighborhood district signs and 21 directional compasses in the pavement. “I’ve done 10 California cities,” Flores said, “and you’d be surprised at how people don’t understand where north, south, east and west are located.” He said a cloudy day or high-rises can obscure the sun and visitors may not realize downtown’s blocks are oriented in a north-south direction. They know there’s a bay but in many places, it can’t be seen. When he first came to San Diego about 10 years ago, Flores said he was confused. “I wanted to get to the Embarcadero and I didn’t know where the Embarcadero was,” he recalled.

In a nod to cloud computing, some signs include QR codes that smartphone users can scan to take them to downtown-oriented websites. There are 194 signs, which break down into 109 for vehicles, 60 for pedestrians, 25 for public parking lots and garages signs. A dark blue, similar to what’s used on downtown light poles, forms the background color. The Clearview sans serif typeface, common to many highway signs, was chosen to provide instant legibility. To combat graffiti, the signs have been treated with a coating to make removal easy. And a special liquid spray has been identified to remove stickers and their adhesive backing.