Robert L. Peters

17 October 2010

The man who believes in storks…

Buenos Aires, Argentina

(translated from an article by Marina Gambier for La Nación)

Over the last 50 years, Ronald Shakespear and his team have made their mark on the city: almost everything that you see in Buenos Aires is their work, from street names to signage at hospital maternity rooms.

From behind the counter at her candy store, “Los Tres Soles,” Gladys answers the same question fifteen times a day: “Excuse me, Madame: Is this street Bonifacio? Where is Calasanz? Is it that way?”

“You are now at the corner of Bonifacio and Calasanz,” answers Gladys, who has been “moonlighting” as a tour guide for the last five years, ever since someone took away the street name signs from that neighborhood corner as a souvenir.

This kind of thing, which happens quite often in Buenos Aires, makes Ronald Shakespear sad. Back in 1971, along with his then business partner, architect Guillermo Gonzalez Ruiz, Shakespear designed a street signage system that was capable of leading people to their destination without the need to ask for directions. The first Visual Plan for Buenos Aires succeeded in bringing order to the urban information landscape, thus making life easier for people.

That goal has been an inspiration for Diseño Shakespear, a firm that has been transforming public spaces for the last 50 years through signage projects featuring a simple visual language and pure fonts. From institutional billboards to logos for several major brands, it is no overstatement to say that the streets of Buenos Aires look the way Shakespear designed them to look.

Their most significant project is probably the signage system for the local subway network, which was developed over more than a decade, after in-depth research into the needs, habits and likings of nearly two million users who ride the various subway lines on a daily basis.

The Shakespear look, however, is also present in the hallways of local hospitals (which he designed along with his brother Raul), in storefronts, banks, courier companies, shopping malls, museums, parks and even soccer stadiums, all over the country. A complete display of those symbols, from tollbooth signs to the little yellow hands that designate taxicab stops, decorates the walls of his study in San Isidro, where a team works under the leadership of his children Lorenzo, Juan and Barbara. Ronald says that they are his bosses now.

Paidos publishing house has just republished his book “Señal de Diseño. Memoria de la Práctica,” where this suspender-wearing, pipe-smoking pioneer of Latin American design who speaks with florid irony, reflects on the need to listen to people, the basis of any creative process.

Is any branch of your family related to the author of Hamlet?

My last name is spelled without the final “e.” When I was in England, however, I had access to some documents of William Shakespeare and I saw several different spellings of his last name.

I was born in Rosario and I am a fourth-generation Argentinean. My father and my grandfather were born here. I know that one branch of the family first arrived in Argentina in 1850. I have met other Shakespears in the United States. There are a few Shakespears in Buenos Aires including my sons and daughters.

Have you worked on any public space projects in Rosario?

I visit my hometown all the time. I have a friend in Santa Fe: Governor Hermes Binner. Whenever I go see him, we go to the river shore and eat pejerrey [a local river fish]. Binner is a very intelligent man and an urban strategist, who has changed Rosario and is now doing his job in a province that has a lot of problems. Rosario is a big city, with a lot of traffic in the downtown area, and it is not easy for users to move around the city. There is a signage problem at bus stops and on the buses themselves.

There is a need for clearer signage regarding destinations, routes and bus stops; also, more shelters are needed at bus stops, because people get wet whenever it rains. There is a lot of construction work going on in Rosario.

My studio did several private-sector works, such as Alto Rosario and the Municipal Bank. Unfortunately, we have not done any work in public spaces in Rosario yet. This type of work demands respect for the people and the local history.

When did you first become interested in urban spaces?

Urban spaces attracted my attention early on, as I discovered that they were a healthy medium for images, because they remain. It may be narcissistic or selfish on my part, but I have always been concerned about the ephemeral nature of my work.

The two things that do remain are brands and of course signs. My first signage project was the Visual Plan for Buenos Aires, back in 1971. It included pedestrian, vehicle and regulatory signs in the city. At that time, street signs were blue plates that were stuck onto walls. The traffic signs were made by the city’s Transit Authority, and they were illegible.

We proposed to the Mayor’s office to change their design. The Mayor was an accountant, a smart man who believed in us and with whom we had a good rapport from the very beginning. We found out a Maintenance Office that was located on Bullrich Avenue. Thousands of our street signs were manufactured there, with the help of the Public Works Secretary. They were implemented in 1972; this was a job that I did with my then business partner, architect Guillermo Gonzalez Ruiz, and a great team.

The city was neater then; visual pollution was not so bad. Was that a factor in your design?

I was born in 1941 and my family moved to Buenos Aires in 1945. I am a “rosarino” in exile. I remember there used to be very little advertising on the streets. As a result, it is true that visual pollution was low. When we started working on our Subway project 14 years ago, the big problem in terms of signage—both inside subway stations and outside on the street—was the visual attack of advertising stimuli, which had taken over the whole city. That deteriorates the environment to the point that clear and direct communication related to public services becomes difficult: it has to compete with advertising. That forced us to create a location strategy that enabled the signs to break through the surrounding visual “noise.”

What was the problem with the old signage system?

Traffic signs had been made by the city’s Transit Authority. They were illegible, ridiculously small, and a number of different fonts had been used in them. One single sign would include lower and upper case letters, italics, bold letters, etc. The Transit Authority people were engineers; they were experts where transit was concerned. They had a lot of experience in this field. They knew how to build roads, but when it came to communication, they were in trouble.

Luckily, no one gets lost in Buenos Aires. It is an orthogonal city where circulation is easy. It is not like London, Paris or Rome. In any case, it is more like New York City; Third Avenue comes right after Fourth Avenue, and so on. An orthogonal plan guaranties some order.

How can you make the city understandable for so many different users?

We defined our mission as “making the city legible.” I travel a lot to the United States as a lecturer. I have to admit that is my means of livelihood. I have given lectures in 32 different cities around the world. There is a lot of fantasy about public signage; a lot of people talk about a theory of public wayfinding, but very few people have actually worked on it. We ran tests and conducted focus groups on signage systems. Two different prototypes were built for the subway network; we then conducted a public test in order to determine any flaws; we wanted to know what it was that people could not understand.

And what was that?

People will say wonderful things. If you are capable of listening to people, they will respond. It is about being humble: you have to step down from your pedestal. In the case of the subway, we worked with two focus groups comprised of 300 people each, because we wanted to define, for instance, the issue of colors.

Ever since 1913, the colors that identified the various subway lines had been hidden or barely suggested in the old subway stations. We put those colors at every subway entrance. We did that because people would tell us: “I always ride the blue line; I ride the green line; I ride the red line…”

Users establish a connection with the subway line they ride: that is the source of communication. I was at Boca Juniors stadium when Diego Maradona played his last soccer match, and I remember one huge banner that I saw there: “If Diego played a game in heaven, I would die to go see him.” And these people are not designers or semiotics experts. That is why I insist that one can be a designer, but not if one does not know how to listen…

Cities are dynamic. They change constantly, and there are new users all the time. Does design gradually become obsolete?

I believe there is an aging process, but people are cleverer and move faster, because there is so much imagery around us, that people’s perception changes day after day. You need to develop a strategy to compete with advertising. One important factor when it comes to signage is predictability. People should know that the signs are there, that they will always find them there, and that the signs will solve their problems. That comes as a result of the use of sequences. That is to say, signs will pop up in sequence, just like Hansel and Gretel’s crumbs, and will guide users. Their presence can be predicted; a dialogue is established. If that can be done, the rest is just about designing the signs themselves, their iconic structure and a reasonably adequate color so that signs will serve their purpose and the semiotic circle will be complete.

Can you see Hansel and Gretel’s crumbs in Buenos Aires? Is the city’s signage predictable that way?

Not always. The street signs we designed are still there; yet, a few years ago, ads were posted on them. That is tantamount to betraying users, who have paid their taxes and have a right to be informed. It is also an attack on perception, because the information that is placed in the top portion of the sign will prevail over the one at the bottom, where the actual street name is written. I said this to a former Mayor once, and he said: “That is the way of the world now” and he pulled a photograph out of a drawer: it was a photograph of a former President of Argentina wearing a soccer team shirt that read “Yamaha.”

Have you ever got lost in any city?

I got lost in Venice once. It is not a bad thing to get lost in Venice for a little while: it is usually charming.

But one should solve the problem in the best possible way. I like it when old ladies reach their destination. My mom died last year at the age of 99. She used to ride the subway until she was 75 years old, and she was my toughest critic. Whenever she did not understand something, she would call me on the phone to complain about it.

The old subway map was very curious; it was upside down. It was vertical instead of horizontal. We made it horizontal; who writes vertically? The Chinese do, Asian peoples do.

Do you think that new technologies, social networks and new reading devices are going to change graphic codes? For instance, do you think that all the information in the subway will be displayed on a screen at some point in the future?

That is already happening in some places. We worked on Dot shopping mall, where signs are digital, because that is cheaper, quicker and especially because things change so often inside a shopping mall that a medium is needed that will have the ability to reflect those changes immediately. If one store moves, closes down, or another store opens, those facts are communicated immediately. And users learn about them immediately.

Does that force designers to change traditional design?

In England, for instance, they are replacing fixed signs with digital signs. A computer will send out signs for rainy days, sudden braking, high temperature, accident warnings. That is to say, signs about contingencies, changing circumstances that cannot be communicated through fixed signs. I think it is working for them and the cost is reasonably low: in the end, it is just some wiring. But I believe that no one can or will be able to do without the alphabet.

What I do believe is changing now is pictogram management, that is to say, post-linguistic codes. There are a number of them, and they are not always clear. Words are irreplaceable, except for a few codes such as “wrong way,” “do not enter,” “not a through street,” “stop,” and “danger,” which are universal. All others have some kind of problem and call for a verbal explanation to be placed next to them. Yet, it took humankind several centuries to learn 28 signs in the alphabet; it would be reasonable to give pictograms the same opportunity. It is not so easy to decode a pictogram.

For instance, we once developed a signage system to be used in all city hospitals. When the Director of Durand Hospital saw the maternity ward sign, he told me: “Mr. Shakespear, you must know that babies are not brought by a stork!”

He was deadly serious when he said it. And yet, that was the most successful sign in the system. A woman who is about to give birth is not sick. On the contrary, she is about to do the most important thing in her life. They asked for more signs, and we had them printed on big panes of glass: apparently, people do believe that babies are brought by a stork. And so do I.

Hospital signage must be sensitive work. If you arrive at the hospital feeling sick and you cannot find your way about…

Yes, there are hospitals where people are really upset when they first get there. We developed an eighteen-symbol code: neonatology, surgery… It was a big job and we learned a lot. It was very rewarding as well, because I believe in intangible things: things that happen later.

Signs are supposed to help people live better. If design does not help people live better, it is no good at all. And the truth is, I feel satisfied when I see people use our designs and understand them.

You are now designing wine labels. Is it harder to communicate a brand than it is to communicate an urban sign?

The goal is more commercial, but we told the client that the problem is not just about the label: the bottle makes a difference as well. I think it is time to change for new bottles. We are running an experiment in supermarkets: that is where the contact happens. And it is all about impulse purchases.

We are now working on six new shopping malls that are keeping us very busy. I do not buy at supermarkets much, anyway.

You don’t? Not even wine?

I am not big about shopping. There is nothing that I want, other than my music and my books. My main interests are my lectures and my students.

That is my way of giving back.

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© LA NACION (read this original piece online in Spanish, with additional imagery, here)

Contrary to what some may think, Ronald Shakespear does not pay me to post stories about his design exploits on this blog (well, other than the odd case of Argentinian wine, that is… hint, hint). Yes, he’s been a friend for many years… but above all, I believe that his open, direct, humanist, and very “civil” approach to design is exemplary—and as such, is worth highlighting.

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