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Walk This Way

Augmenting reality to create a deeper message.




Branding, wayfinding, environmental graphics and, now, augmented reality (AR) are blanket terms. They all consist of adding deeper meanings to objects we encounter in everyday life.

We know that signs are often the best way to achieve that deeper connection, the means to that end.
William Dickson, environmental designer and co-founder of Glimmar, a Covington, KY-based advertising technology company that focuses on AR, put it this way: “Consider the journey. Realize that people get stressed out when they aren’t sure where to go.” The trick with good wayfinding is to smoothly move people to their destinations. That’s where signs play a critical role.


When Dickson was enlisted to create the wayfinding system for the Hellmann Creative Center, the site of his current offices, he jumped at the chance. “First, you break it into zones,” he said. “There’s the vehicular zone, what it looks like from a car, the pedestrian zone, the façade zone.” Dickson added, “Then you’re in the door, and the system becomes more granular.”

The goal is often to design a system that suits the space, but harmony and discord must both be considered. “Architects can be very protective when a wayfinding designer begins proposing visual additions to their designs,” Dickson said, “but the truth is that if there’s not enough discord, nobody pays attention.”


With that in mind, Dickson used a palette of bold colors, incorporating uniform, rectangular shapes, and wove it throughout the building. This created a system that stands out, yet feels integrated – the hallmark of wayfinding success. Knowing the time-honored rules of good design is integral to this process.



As the process of creating a “deeper experience” evolves, signmakers and designers need to understand that those rules are changing. “Mobile [device usage] is the norm now,” Dickson explained. “Being able to use that platform is important. People are comfortable with it.”

That’s where AR technology comes in. Dickson is excited about technology inevitably untying the Gordian knot of virtual information delivery. “When Apple or Google step in and integrate AR into our smart devices, it’s game over.” he said. “The age of AR will be here. Quick.” The recent Pokémon Go! phenomenon demonstrated the pent-up desire for, and viability of, this type of interaction.

“The deeper experience of AR means users can connect with more things, and those connections can be monetized,” Dickson said. “Signs, on their own, have a fixed physical space, but signs embedded with AR have access to unlimited virtual real estate – and unlimited monetization opportunities.”

The AR experience can even be sponsored. “The sign on the wall costs money,” Dickson explained. “The owner has to buy it, install it, clean it … fix it. But with AR, if they can make $300 per year on that sign, and they have 500 signs in their hospital, or zoo, that income adds up pretty fast.”

Beyond overt monetization, through sponsorships and ad placement, there are many other exciting possibilities on the horizon. Consider the “virtual docent” that can seamlessly lead tourists through a city or patients through a hospital. “The docent will remember your routes, learn your preferences, anticipate things you may be interested in,” Dickson said. “The docent will become a connection you can talk to, sort of like Siri or Alexa.” A very targeted Siri or Alexa, that begins to build a relationship tailored to the user.

Much of this is activated through AR-enabled signage. “Sign painters yielded to printed signs, printers begrudged LED boards and LED manufacturers won’t love AR experiences,” Dickson said.


But if history shows us anything, it’s that new technologies don’t change people’s wants and needs; they just create a better way to deliver an even deeper, more meaningful message.


The Dickson File

The son of a printer and small business owners, William Dickson was raised with a deep understanding of the power of typography. Hours spent as a child watching “Doc,” a signpainter in his hometown of Maysville, KY gave Dickson an appreciation for letterforms and the aesthetic a good signwriter can create. This sensitivity to signage and branding served Dickson well as he earned a degree in communications from Northern Kentucky Univ. Dickson’s first wayfinding project was for Cincinnati’s Good Samaritan Hospital, where he was born.

Dickson is co-founder of Glimmar (, a branding, advertising technology company that focuses on augmented reality and strategic branding.



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