Illegible Leicester

City council spending £100k on design consultants, improved street signs and wayfinding systems

The trouble with Leicester is that it’s just too….illegible.

What’s that meant to mean? It means that if you’re new to the city you’re likely to struggle to find your way.  You can’t read the road. The signs aren’t clear. You don’t know where you are in relation to where you want to be.

That’s why so many people can be seen stumbling round Victoria Park’s croquet pitch asking for directions to Clock Tower. Yep, they made the fundamental mistake of arriving by train and turning left outside the station. Same thing with all those first-time car drivers with their vehicles wedged into the Magazine Gateway. They were trying for the John Lewis car park but it all got too illegible for them. Plop! What’s that? Just another pedestrian heading for the Space Centre who fell into the Grand Union instead.

Such a widespread problem requires a heavy-duty solution. Which for Leicester City Council is to spend £100,000 on design consultants. A team of highway signage consultants, to be precise, will work on project Legible Leicester and unscramble this crisis of illegibility. To be even more precise, they will be “revealing the city as an accessible, walkable and vibrant place with a range of character areas and themed activities promoting longer stays and repeat visits.”

Which is simply marvellous. Except when you think about it. And when your brain kicks in you realise that it won’t work. And you start wondering what else one hundred grand could have been spent on in and around the city.

It won’t work because…sorry about this, designers…people don’t take much notice of signage. True, there may be one or two signage spotters wandering round like old-school bus spotters recording every possible variation of design, typography and colour in street signs. But that’s not most of us. We stop staff in a supermarket and ask where the eggs are. When we ask, staff don’t sigh and tell us to move our eyes above the horizontal where we’ll see a whole array of expensively-produced, colour-coded and integrated signage which helpfully includes a dirty great placard with the word “Eggs” on it just a few feet away. Such signs are there, masses of them. But we don’t use them because we are not signage-literate and we prefer to find our own way, or to ask.

The problem isn’t that Leicester is illegible. It’s that people are don’t work like that. We’re not that attuned to the terrific products of the design industry. We are, if you like, signage illiterate. Spending serious amounts of cash on pukka design is not guaranteed to make any practical difference.

Exploring the strange and unfamiliar is, after all, one of the points of visiting a new city. That’s why a phrase like “hidden jewels” has such resonance in tourism sales literature. We like cities to have surprises, things that aren’t obvious and always apparent. It’s easy to find your way round Milton Keynes. But do you want to go there? Precisely.

Getting lost means you stop people and ask. That’s good. Friendly human interaction will do a lot to stimulate economic activity and give visitors a memorable, positive experience. More so than any number of arrival hub information points or electronic scoreboards saying how many places there are in any given car park.

Anyway, this is all happening. Just under two years ago, the city mayor signed off on the scheme, giving Sarah Harrison, city centre director, authority to appoint a consultant. The budget, between £95k and £115k, is for a “scoping study to define the strategy”. And now the council is inviting tenders, with a closing date of mid-February, for designers to deliver “a comprehensive and integrated wayfinding, transport and visitor information system”. Couldn’t someone from the city council do that? No. There’s no one with the necessary skills.

So as teams of highway signage consultants across the land suck their designery pencils and await the burst of creative inspiration that will land them the contract, we’re left wondering. Is Leicester’s economic action plan too focused on the city centre? Should more be spent on other depressed parts of the city? Wouldn’t some form of regeneration, community projects or other economic stimulation do more to make a real, long-term difference to people’s social and economic well being?

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