Keynote talk to introduce SIGN 09, a conference organised by the International Institute of Information Design and the Sign Design Society: Vienna 3-11 December 2009.

My context-setting talk, for the city identity/public spaces session challenges the way we look at information design interventions in the urban environment, both in an international and a local context.

Identities of cities and towns are built up over time, layered continually, such that there are, typically, a multiplicity of languages (both literal and metaphorical) and systems that shape places through identification, orientation and direction processes.

As business travel and tourism increase (albeit at a slower pace recently) the more the requirement for ‘international standards’ and ‘best practice’ strengthens. As we strive to achieve a lingua franca in pedestrian wayfinding, transport information and street signing the more people will benefit, or so current wisdom suggests. On the other hand, cities and towns are looking to promote their individuality, distinctiveness and attractiveness to encourage social and economic growth.

Over the last year or so, there is evidence of a rethinking of the need for ‘local’ demands to supersede the orthodoxy of globalisation. The challenge is an important one: the richness of city life derives in part from accretions of information over time. Cities tell their own stories in different ways and information planning and design needs to be conscious of this reality. Can we adapt standards and systems in order to better reflect uniqueness and local culture, or is this just pandering to stereotypes? Are we importing Western methods inappropriately in some cases?

My argument is not for or against, merely to propose that we, as designers, make few assumptions at the outset, ask the right questions and seek to understand the nature of locality and community to find ways to ‘square the circle’. In developing the discourse I will reference current thinking and practice, as well as historic precedence from cities around the world.