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Pentagram designer Paula Scher has created a beautiful new design identity for New York City’s 14 miles of beaches that presents an optimistic, clean, and attractive vision of what urban beaches should be. “They’re signs, not posters,” she told Hyperallergic, “but there is a lot of nostalgia about the boardwalk.” And therein was the challenge the veteran designer faced in tackling her assignment that was completed on a tight five-month deadline, which is unheard of for a city-wide project. Why the hurry? Simple, Hurricane Sandy.
After last fall’s Hurricane Sandy, the city’s beachfronts were in shambles. In the Rockaways, where homes and the beloved boardwalk were washed and thousands of people were displaced, the beaches represented the heart and soul of a community and a place where the community met, relaxed, and played. Scher knew her design had to appeal to that community and the city at large, and they had to be memorable. The city didn’t want the waterfront areas, which have already endured endless delays in the return of public transportation routes and other services to lose a summer because of red tape at City Hall.
“What this thing had to do and part of why it was successful was it had to become a hybrid between a sign system and a landmark,” she says. “It had to have a memory, because it was part of what makes visiting a beach special. You would see a landmark when getting to the beach and it was a big part of the memory … In the beginning, I was trying to do something nostalgic but it was a horrible mistake, it became a poster for the beach … I realized it would look corny really quickly.”
Each of Scher’s main signs incorporate a photograph from the vantage point of the site, creating what she calls “the emotional information graphic” that helps connect to the memory of the place, while fusing the appeal of a poster with city guidelines.
In terms of the typeface, Scher knew she didn’t want Helvetica or something more expected and instead chose a combination of two fonts, Founders Grotesk and an uppercase Maple. She decided to ignore the typical green seen on New York Parks signage and chose bright blue and yellow. “No one wants to see green at the beach,” Scher says.
The polymer signs use digital prints on a resin-based surface that has a laminate on top. “You can’t scratch it, can’t dent it, and it is pretty indestructible,” she says.
New York City signage has traditionally been functional and devoid of the finesse that other city’s celebrate with good graphic design. Scher, who also designed the graphic identity of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, attributes City Hall’s change of attitude towards contemporary design to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who she candidly calls “the design mayor.”
Bloomberg revamped a flailing city Art Commission, now called the Design Commission, to include an engineer, environmental graphics designers, a real estate developer, and others who broadened the scope of the commission beyond the art community. “[Mayor Bloomberg] wanted to empower it because he wanted things to be well designed,” Scher says.
She thinks Bloomberg’s role in the redesigning of the city, including the expansion of urban park space, the bike lanes, and bike sharing programming are under-recognized elements of his administration. “No question [he is the design mayor] and the world doesn’t even know it,” she says.
The design system for NYC Beaches includes ground signs and elevated sign markers that will be placed at three-quarter mile intervals along the beach on yellow-painted pillars that once held up the boardwalk. Post-Sandy, the possibility of rebuilding the boardwalk has washed away as environmental and budget issues hinder its return, but the memory of those distinctive forms has been incorporated into the new design. The elevated signs will not feel nearly as high as they currently are when sand dunes are built to cover up much of the yellow-painted concrete forms.
The signs are not the only thing being redesign on the city beaches. Garrison Architects created a series of modular pods, while Sage and Coombe Architects designed more utilitarian “islands” with supergraphics of stylized maps on their surface.
Many people outside New York may be surprised that the city has 14-miles of beaches, but in reality the city’s beachfronts are one of the largest urban networks of its kind in the country. As a point of comparison, Los Angeles County enjoys 20-miles of beaches on its ocean coast.
The new NYC Beaches design program is currently being implemented at Rockaway Beach in Queens, Orchard Beach in the Bronx, Coney Island Beach, Brighton Beach, and Manhattan Beaches in Brooklyn, and Midland, Wolfe’s Pond, Cedar Grove, and South Beaches in Staten Island.
All images courtesy Pentagram