Cobalt-60 The Cobalt Blog

Cobalt Signs (and Omens)

By William Harris

As a small creative agency, we haven’t historically enjoyed a lot of foot traffic. Yes, we have the occasional client and vendor visit, but because we’re not selling widgets, lattes or dog grooming services (i.e., retail stuff), we don’t generally attract many consumers or casual shoppers. As a result, exterior signage hasn’t been our highest priority. At our two most recent locations, simple shingles served to designate Cobalt’s office space to the outside world.

Then, in October of 2017, we moved to Harrisonburg (see map below), into office space once occupied by a regional supplier of office products and furniture. We didn’t give much thought to what had transpired in our office prior to our arrival — until we started getting people wandering into our new space looking for the “office supply people.” Even when we told these well-meaning folks that the former tenants moved out and had been replaced by a completely different kind of business, they often stared blankly, nonplussed and seemingly confounded by the concept we were presenting. It seems that, because we had no strong branding on the outside of the building, our visitors were unwilling or unable to accept the change that confronted them.


Cobalt Harrisonburg VA

“Why did the office supply people leave?”

“Where did they go?”

“Do you sell office supplies?”

These were the kinds of questions we often received, to which we responded, as kindly as we could, “No, we don’t know where the office supply people went. And, no, we’re not an office supply company but a strategic communications firm. We can’t sell you two reams of 20-pound bond or a case of sticky notes, though we can let you borrow a pen or a pencil.”

At the same time, we noticed another strange phenomenon. Delivery people found it challenging to get to our office or to even determine which office was which once they found the correct building. That’s because each unit was subtly marked with a single letter on a simple wooden sign. The photos below show what our entrance looked like right after we moved in.

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We became acutely aware of our lack of exterior Cobalt branding and decided to make an upgrade. We asked Cobalt art director Mark Miller to evaluate our new digs and recommend a solution, understanding that we couldn’t affix anything to the decorative wooden facade above the doors. Our only option was to install a small sign on the exterior brick wall and make use of the wide entryway in front of the entrance.

Mark’s proposed design can be seen below:

171220 Cobalt Entrance Signs

Thanks to the good work of Cobalt Senior Project Manager and Production Specialist Steve DeLuca, we were able to submit the fabrication of the metal-and-acrylic sign to PhotoWorksGroup in Charlottesville and the exterior rubber mat to Mat Logo, Inc.

Everything delivered between December and February, and the final result looked exactly as Mark envisioned it in his mockups. The photos below capture the installation of our new sign, which left us feeling branded, located and … established. We think it’s an omen of great things to come.

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Read below to learn more about the history of signs as vital communications tools.




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Sign-tology: Seven Surprising Facts about Signs

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  1. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks used signs for advertising, though it was the Romans who created signboards by whitewashing sections of walls for suitable inscriptions.
  2. The earliest signs didn’t contain words but icons and pictographs — because the general public couldn’t read. After the invention of printing by movable type, it didn’t take long for printed handbills, flyers, broadsheets, and posters to appear in abundance on walls and fences — and for “post no bills” warnings.
  3. America put national standards for road signs in place in 1935, but the success (and failure) of signs captured the attention of designers, urban planners and highway safety administrators.
  4. In 1973, the Society for Experiential Graphic Design (SEGD) was founded to study how signs can be used effectively to orient people and guide them through space. This led to a new movement — and a new word, wayfinding, first coined by urban planner Kevin Lynch in his influential book Image of the City as “way-finding,” which evolved in the 1970s to its modern form and definition: information systems that guide people through a physical environment and enhance their understanding and experience of the space.
  5. Wayfinding is essential in built environments large and small. In New York City, the DOT Sign Shop employs a 22-person team in Maspeth, Queens, to make sure city residents can navigate roads, sidewalks and subway systems.
  6. In 2010, NYC Sign Shop workers received a jolt when the Federal Highway Administration required all street signs — more than 250,000 total — be switched to lowercase for safety and legibility reasons. The cost to replace the signage was estimated at $27.6 million.
  7. Some city signs, long faded and lost to modern travelers, are getting a new life, thanks to “ghostsign” artists. They use a technique called projection mapping to illuminate walls and other urban structures with digitally remastered artwork.