A Sign of the Times

Go to any North American city that’s larger than a few thousand people and you’ll encounter a predictable range of businesses. All will have a grocery store or supermarket, a place to get gas for your car, likely a bank. Larger populations are lucky enough to have a range of shopping options, cafés and restaurants.

There’s another business that, regardless of population size, dots most towns and cities across North America: the sign shop. Pass through even the smallest towns, too small for a single traffic light, and my bet is you’ll find a sign shop. They’re part of the DNA of our cities; an essential service, if it’s fair to call it that.

Signs are everywhere. When they’re done well, they become a memorable part of the way we experience places. If they lack consideration, they become wasteful eye-sores detracting from our enjoyment of a place.

The origins of Cygnus are rooted in the manufacture and implementation of signs. For much of our 40 year history, we maintained a comprehensive manufacturing shop in the back of our Calgary headquarters. We employed a dedicated team of craftsmen, tradespeople, artists, painters, assembly staff and installers. Over the years, materials have changed, but signs have remained. Painted letters evolved into transferred shapes in metal, acrylic and vinyl in the 1980’s and eventually became digitized to be reproduced in various media from the 1990s on. 40 years after the beginnings of Cygnus, signs are still an integral part of what we do. Signs are the tactile forms that communicate messages, direct visitors, and announce information.

While much of the design process now happens in front of a computer screen, removed from physical environments, there is risk of becoming detached from the tactile trades that laid the foundation for wayfinding design. In the culinary industry, there’s a lot to be gained when a chef learns to grow their own produce. Similarly, it’s not uncommon for architects to learn their trade by first understanding details of construction first hand. At Cygnus, our connection to the materials and processes of our trade contribute directly to early brainstorming and concept ideation. While the back-of-house shop is long gone, our experience in manufacturing, assembling, and installing signs has continued to inform our approach.

Signage and wayfinding are related terms, often used interchangeably. While signage refers to a physical object, wayfinding is a much broader concept that refers to any number of elements that serve to direct visitors. Signs require craftsmanship, an understanding of materials, finishes, and fabrication techniques. Wayfinding requires an understanding of the way visitors navigate their environments, the challenges they’re likely to encounter, and the decisions they’ll make along the way. Wayfinding relies heavily on signage, but also includes environmental landmarks, architectural cues, and digital tools. As the design industry celebrates wayfinding, turning a loosely defined term into a completely new field of study, we think it’s important to acknowledge the interdependence of concepts and materials, strategy and technique.

In 2018, Cygnus is launching a new chapter in our business. Our new brand is a reflection of our history, values, and motivation to help visitors and staff navigate their environments. The name Cygnus comes from one of the brightest constellations in the night sky, referencing the important role that stars played in early navigation and exploration. As our projects focus increasingly on our strategic approach to wayfinding design, simplifying complex environments for diverse groups of people, we never stray too far our history. In a way, stars are just signs in the sky.

– Gordon Milne, CEO/President

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