Last October, Hurricane Sandy pummeled New York City’s 14 miles of coastline, washing away the sand and destroying the boardwalks. Seven months later, the beaches were mended enough to be reopened for Memorial Day, but many of the boardwalk repairs would have to wait.
In response, Pentagram’s Paula Scher was tasked with a unique challenge: Get people to the beach without any massive structures to guide them there. Her team’s response was to create a series of signs that would feel welcoming, that would make that arrival to the water feel like a mini escape.
“I know when I was a child I was always so excited to go to the beach. I would see the boardwalk, smell the suntan oil and say, ‘We’re here!’ Scher tells Co.Design. “The signs can never replace the boardwalks in people’s memories, but for young children, coming to the beach for the first time it will be a ‘we’re here’ moment for them.”
To create this sensation, Pentagram took an unconventional approach. Each sign features a full-color photograph of its beach from its own perspective. In other words, each sign shows visitors the view. This literalness is a tacit, parochial statement–instead of stock photography from Hawaiian sunsets, the contextual photography is a proof of pride of New York’s own coastline. But it’s also highly functional. It says “Yes, you are here, and if you don’t believe me, just take a look!”
It’s clever–so clever that I couldn’t help but ask Scher if, rather than photographs at all, they’d considered windows with a text overlay. That way, the sign would literally show visitors the view, and maybe even elicit a few chuckles in the process. “Cutting a window out of the sign is cute,” she responded, humoring me, I’m sure, “but I guarantee that most viewers would think it was a vandalized object.”
Pentagram’s other big contribution was a complete makeover of the “no lifeguard on duty” placard. The old sign was red and black, with “Danger” written in big letters. It basically told a visitor, “You shouldn’t be here.” The new sign is grounded in a soothing cerulean and a nonjudgemental Founders Grotesk, so despite the fact that a lot of the same scary information is still presented in all caps, casual beach goers don’t need to step on the sand with their stomach in knots.
“Good design is mostly about being nice to people,” Scher writes. “Warning and regulation signs are necessary. It doesn’t cost any more to make them attractive.”
Additionally, new buildings were designed by Garrison Architects and Sage and Coombe Architects. See those in the gallery above.