The Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) provides shelter, job-seeking assistance, mental health services, and case management to a vulnerable segment of Seattle’s homeless population — those with severe, chronic mental and addictive illnesses. As a graduate cohort of designers, we worked with DESC to devise solutions that would improve flow and maximize resources. After a series of observations, a smaller group of us focused our efforts on designing effective wayfinding that would improve interactions between clients and staff.
DESC offers different services from four locations around 3rd and James, and we conducted observations at all four sites. As we analyzed our findings, we made several conclusions that led us to consider wayfinding as a possible target:
DESC intentionally refrained from posting clear exterior signage out of respect for its clients. Names of services and even the organization’s name were not to be seen.
Because they were unmarked, clients and other visitors would sometimes enter the wrong DESC facility.
On occasion, a staff member who tried to redirect a client to the right facility would encounter difficulty, as the client would assume he or she was being sent away. Given the lack of signage, it was also difficult to give the client directions.
Having to redirect clients and others was a drain on staff members’ already limited resources.
Any signs we created would need to meet a number of unique requirements.
Bold and clear… The colors needed to stand out and be easily referenced verbally — no turquoise, for instance, because it could be described as either blue or green — and different from colors on the buildings themselves, which were green and silver.
…But also discreet. Paradoxically, even though the signs would need to stand out enough that they could be easily identified, their meaning would have to be discreet so as to maintain the clients’ privacy and dignity. Staff members already used street numbers to reference locations and to direct clients, although the existing numerals were inconsistently placed and hard to see. We decided to amplify and use the numbers as the basis for our wayfinding system.
Compliant with city ordinance. DESC is located in the historic Pioneer Square district, which had special rules governing building appearance. Any signage would have to be inside the building.
Durable. The windows at DESC are smashed on a semi-regular basis, so if we were to use a decal, it would require constant replacement. We selected a durable acrylic instead, and proposed hanging it from the window frame, slightly away from the glass.
The end result is a sign system that facilitates a certain kind of verbal referral: “Head to the door with the red 515.” The signage designs were the simplest and most direct possible, with no reference to DESC or the services inside. We tested them using paper printouts to determine the right size for visibility from the street.
Finally, to facilitate better referral moments, we designed a map for placement at each location. The colors and numbers would match the signage seen outside, and staff would be able to use it as a visual aid when referring clients from location to location.
This is a portion of a larger project done in collaboration with Scott Tsukamaki, Sarah Reitz, Richelle Dumond, Mae Boettcher, and Julie Sutherland.