You’ll B. O. K. at BOK.
Getting lost while creating wayfinding systems.
In 2017 I took on a few jobs that scared the shit out of me. This one was by far the biggest and scariest. The BOK building is an old technical school in South Philly that is a few years into becoming a co-working maker/artist/generally interesting person space. Smith & Diction was approached to take on the wayfinding for this monster of a building in late 2016. It started out with a nice clean brief; a few entrance signs, a directory, temporary signage, and some tenant signage. Cake walk, nope more like meatloaf walk. Betcha didn’t see that coming, well neither did I because this project took an entire year and fought me tooth and nail every step of the way.
I’m happy to finally share the systems and work we created and I’m very proud of how much the project forced me to grow whether or not I enjoyed it along the way. FYI this is a long read but honestly you can probably just look at the pictures and be just fine. Enjoy!
Let’s start from the top here, most Philadelphians know BOK through its rooftop bar. And if you’re not from Philly, you’ve probably never heard of BOK at all. In which case you can skip all these paragraphs. In the summer they open up the top floor as a beautiful bar with unbelievable sun-soaked views of the skyline. You can catch a special kind of vibe up there when the sun is setting and the city starts to light up beneath you.
But most people don’t know that the building is also home to an incredibly diverse group of artists, creators, and all kinds of inspiring types of people: furniture makers, tattoo artists, hair stylists, photographers, backdrop painters, screen printers, glassblowers, bakers, musicians, massage therapists, and the list goes on and on.
That’s where we come in. The BOK team wanted to make this building feel a little more alive and tap into the creativity of its tenants.
Enter into nothingness.
When you enter the building from 9th St, the tenant entrance, you are greeted with a whole lot of nothing. The hallways stretch for the entire length of a city block and it feels like you’re in some sort of nightmare where you keep running and running but you never quite get to the end.
To help prevent visitors from getting lost, the building’s in-house team had created some makeshift signage in a questionable pink color that was doing an alright job of telling people where to go, but most times visitors would walk right past it and end up wandering the halls looking like a lost 6th grader on field trip.
On a building tour, Lindsey & Emma from Scout (the building owners), laid out all the problems they had been running into: people getting lost, having a hard time finding elevators, bathrooms, and the tenants they came to see. And it just felt like the signage wasn’t quite representing the creativity or uniqueness of their tenants. They wanted the building to feel a little more “alive.”
All while sticking to the brand guidelines which consisted only of Helvetica Neue (a typeface known for its creative zest), and it has to be a system that can flex to accommodate over 100 different tenants. It was then that I felt the handcuffs slip to the next tightest setting.
You could go with this or you could go with that.
To help visitors get their bearings, we came up with the this way, that way sign. This was created specifically to be slightly obnoxious so that visitors wouldn’t miss it. But setting aside its obnoxiousness, the sign has some subtleties worth noting. You’ll notice the frame wraps the corner but on the corner itself we opted to have the edge be a hanging edge.
This was something I thought would be so so simple. You just make the frame and then install the wood panel just like a photograph. Well apparently that’s not how science works. Because when you take out a corner, all the weight of the sign will lean into that corner and it will droop. Luckily I got connected with Daniel Saldutti of DNL DSN and he said the same thing I did when I took this project on. Now I’m paraphrasing here but it was something along the lines of, “I don’t know if it’s possible but fuck it, I’ll try to make it work.”
~*~Music to my ears~*~
He made this beast by hand in less than a week. Then we had to use a forklift to get it on top his van to transfer it from NextFab to BOK, driving incredibly cautiously through the minefield of potholes that is South Philly. It just goes to show anything is possible with a little bit of crazy.
Assuming makes an ass out of U & Me.
I’m just realizing now that phrase is technically incorrect.
Here’s something important that I want to point out. A big mistake I made on this project was underestimating production. As the owner and only designer of a studio of two, I lost thousands of dollars on production time. I got connected with a contractor who was cheap and said he could do it. In the end he took a lot of shortcuts and delayed the project over seven months because he decided to fabricate one thing at a time. I’m not here to bash him personally, because he did get the job done. But I will say: do your research, make sure people can do what they say they can do, measure everything yourself, then measure it again, NEVER assume anything, get a FIRM schedule and hold them accountable to it, and make sure you set up a production fee before you get too deep into the project. I ran into problems I could never have foreseen coming. It bit me in the ass and in the end I lost money. A lot of money. A great lesson to learn, but I just wish it wasn’t on such a large project.
WTF is a Bok Jam?
The directory was one of the most interesting challenges because the Scout team wanted visitors to know how diverse all the tenants in the building were just by looking at it. “Wow, there’s a glassblower in here? Oh shit, there’s a muralist here too. Dang there’s a boxing gym? WTF is a Bok Jam?” They wouldn’t be able to get that reaction with just the company logo or name, so we had to develop a system that not only told you how to get where you were going, but also provided a little peek into what else was going on in the building.
The first part of the directory that we developed was the color coding system for each floor. This was a little tricky, because this was an old school, which meant there were walls of painted lockers on each floor, so each of these color systems had to work well with the existing locker colors. I discovered that one thing no one talks about when doing projects like this is how much of a massive pain in the ass it is to match Pantones to Sherwin Williams paint chips. They are always close but never quiteeeee right. Where’s the Pantone-Sherwin Williams collab at? C’mon guys.
Above is the breakdown of the tenant directory template. We tried to make the hierarchy pretty straight forward. The tenant name is the most prominent element, showing off that forever classic-looking Helvetica Bold tracked in -20. Then the floor and space number at the top, still bold but a little bit smaller. And finally the descriptor info in a light weight and even smaller in size.
When I was designing this system, I was worried that if we just leaned pieces of paper against the wall, they would start to bend and give over time. And sometimes when you open the door it creates a draft, which would cause all the cards to fall on the floor. I didn’t want them to get mixed up or have visitors feel responsible for fixing it. So we tried to figure out what would be the best material that was cost effective and wouldn’t bend over time. We ended up going with a very thin plexi from Everything Plastic. (If you ever need something, literally anything, that is plastic this should be the first place you call.)
Anyway, we were like okay problem solved, we’ll print stickers and get them mounted to plexi…right? Wrong. I called almost every printer in the Philadelphia metro area and they all gave me the cold shoulder. No one wanted to touch this job with a ten foot pole. So guess who ended up peeling and sticking 100+ stickers to tiny pieces of plexi? THIS GUY. It was not fun and it took multiple hours but it got done and it looks great.
Fun fact about this tenant card system: I did not lay out any of the cards that are on the directory. The BOK team did it all on their own and it felt so good to see the system come together without me being involved at all. Proud Design-Dad vibes.
Elevators, how do those work?
I’m not even sure if this was part of the original scope, but I think we just tossed it into our presentation and it ended up working out. Not only that, but I think it became my favorite piece of the entire project. When you get the chance to design an elevator door don’t fuck it up. Make it dope for God’s sake. All we can do is sit and stare while waiting for an elevator so why not give somebody something to stare at.
We built this system to match the color coded floors. Will people put that together? Nah. But we also built another system on top of that where each floor is represented by the number of geometric objects on the door. Will people notice that…Nope. BUT YOU HAVE TO TRY.
Likkkkkkkkeeeeeeee the first floor has one big circle that folds in on itself as the door opens. The second floor has two stripes, the third has three skewed rectangles, the forth is four triangles, and the fifth is five moon phase type deals. The only one that doesn’t follow the rule is the basement where the concept was, welp let’s make this as colorful as possible because it’s pretty dismal down here.
Another subtlety that we considered when designing these doors was motion. What would the doors look like while opening and closing?
It was exciting to think of how a static plane could become active and take on a completely different life just by sliding behind another static plane. My favorite ones really came to life on the third and fifth floors.
An unexpected collaboration.
On each floor there’s a massive cork board as soon as you step off of the elevator so we saw this as an awesome opportunity to flex the color system and help visitors have a point of reference when they go to find their way out.
The original concept was to keep the boards pretty simple and tie them into the visual language of the entrance sign on the first floor. But when we presented these to the BOK team, they suggested why not use this space to showcase some of the artists within the building? It was the perfect way to blend the design system with the vibrancy of the tenants. So we set up a square, color coded floor system on the right side and left the rest of the space open to interpretation.
Some of my personal favorites are on the first and second floor, where the artists took the concept and put their own spin on it to create some truly amazing pieces that make the system shine. The first floor was done by David Guinn who is a great muralist; you may know him from his neon mural on Percy Street. His style fit so well with the wayfinding, so it was like a match made in heaven.
On the second floor, Milder Office took it to literally another dimension by attaching custom cut and sanded wood pieces that create this sort of undulating orb vibe within them. Really trippy. I’m excited to see the building embrace and expand on the system by coming up with things I couldn’t even dream of. I can’t wait to see it how it evolves and takes on a life of its own.
It’s like a strip mall but, you know, better.
The hallways are wide, long, and pretty daunting. And before we got to work, the tenant signage was pretty minimal, so if you forgot the number of the space you were visiting you were basically screwed.
We wanted to give each tenant some space to show off their logo and make their sign their own, maybe even do some sort of crazy die cutting or whatever. So we gave each tenant a blank wooden sign that they could make entirely theirs to do anything they wanted to do to stand out.
Don’t remove the poetry.
:Side Note: Revival Letterpress has one of the best signs. The owner, Matt, went all out with a hand painted gold foiled sign by Keystone Sign Co. His space is by far one of the most beautiful in the building as well. During this project I reached out to Matt to see if he would be open to teaching me how to make some traditional letterpressed posters with woodblock type.
While I was there, I made a “Don’t Remove the Poetry” poster as a gift for my first wedding anniversary. The line is an excerpt of our favorite quote from the Wabi Sabi book.
“Pare down to the essence, but don’t remove the poetry.”
This phrase has stuck with me since the first day I read it. It represents the idea that just because something is simple and stripped down doesn’t mean it can’t be intelligent or beautiful. There’s poetry in every breath you take, especially when you’re not even thinking about it at all. ✺ ViBeY BaBy ✺
I tried to embrace that notion when I was printing the poster; I didn’t pick a typeface beforehand, I just relied on whatever type Matt had in his drawer. I didn’t pick out paper, we just printed on random pieces that were laying around the studio. And that’s how we stumbled upon that beautiful copper on orange combo. Something I would have never have put together on my own.
ANYWAY, back to those wooden tenant signs. The reality is, not everyone wanted to hand paint or design out their own sign, so we also created a straightforward template for tenants who just wanted to post the info. All they have to do is check a box and the design team at BOK handles the rest. Then they get a sign that’s basically just a larger version of the directory downstairs.
The Supreme Court ruling of Room v. Space.
This was an interesting piece of the project that I’m sure no person that has stepped into this building has noticed. What should we call the tenant studios? Is each one a room? Or a studio? A suite? Or maybe it’s a space?
At first, space might not seem like the most obvious choice. It’s not what you’ll see on most building directories. But we put a lot of unnecessary thought into it, and it was by far our favorite choice. It just felt big. There’s a so much potential to space. It’s always expanding. While we were brainstorming, we thought of dozens of examples that helped us finalize the decision, because if you put “room” at the end of any of these, they would sound dumb: think space, play space, work space, art space, office space, make space, party space, free space.
Each space has a little metal plate that wraps around the corner of the doorway with its number displayed on both sides so you can see it as you walk down the hallway. It’s also magnetic, so if the tenant wanted to put up some business cards or a flyer they totally could.
Making restroom icons that don’t look like they came from the toilet.
I don’t know about you, but for some reason I just can’t get behind the standardized ADA restroom iconography. The people feel so rigid like they are wearing shoulder padded power suits from the 90s.
I wanted to take a stab at updating the icons to be a little more rounded and friendly. Especially since we decided to paint them at such a large scale, I wanted them to feel less blocky.
Originally, the bathrooms were labeled with a super tiny red sticker so people had a hard time spotting them, especially when you’re walking down such a long hallway, all of the doors start to look the same. To solve that, we painted the insides of the bathroom doorways a darker color so visitors could notice from a distance that these doorways were different than the others. Then we painted the restroom icon on both sides and cropped it off of the side closest to the hallway, so you could see it easily from either direction.
Building the BOK blocks.
One of the most ridiculous things we got to make for this project was a nine foot stack of letters that sits outside the tenant entrance. This was presented as a sort of, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we did this?” It’s the closest thing a Hail Mary in design, you just throw it up and hopefully someone picks it up and runs with it.
We needed visitors to know that this was the main entrance, NOT the bar entrance. The BOK team also wanted a cork board so tenants could pin up flyers for things that were happening in the building. Just a little something that could tie the building to the community a little more so it wasn’t such a mystery what was going on inside.
The BOK building on instagram is @buildingbok so I was like hmm that sounds like building blocks. Why not nod towards the old-school letter blocks that kids play with and just stack them up? Again, this was presented with no real clue how to make it work IRL. Present first, figure out how to build later I guess.
I was into’d to Daniel & Ross on the fifth floor (the same Daniel from the entrance sign) and we talked about how to build this thing and let me just say I have no idea what I’m doing when it comes to building stuff like this. I would just nod my head and agree to whatever they were saying just to be safe. Just to make this even harder for ourselves, we decided we wanted this to light up at night as well. But those dudes had the bright idea to put solar panels on the top of the stack so it could light up without any exterior wiring.
Daniel poured blood, sweat, and tears into making this thing truly beautiful. He worked his ass off and with some help from his studio-mate Marc DiGiamo, they stacked up the blocks one by one and installed the solar panels in just a few hours.
I couldn’t be happier with how this turned out. It was crazy to see such a long shot come to life. I couldn’t believe it was happening. I just skewed some boxes in photoshop a year earlier and they put in an unbelievable amount of time and energy to actually make this thing not only stand up, but light up as well.
This project was difficult to say the least. I learned more than I signed up for, but I couldn’t be happier to be associated with such an amazing building. Every single person inside is doing something that truly inspires me and I got to become friends with some of those people. Those connections will stick with me for the rest of my life and I’m forever grateful that this project put me in the same place as those people.
Thank you to every single person that helped me or just listened to me complain endlessly throughout the process. I truly couldn’t have done it without your help. Like seriously couldn’t, I don’t know how to make any of this shit. If you’re ever in the building shoot me a text and tell me it looks good so I don’t feel like I wasted a year of my life. Thank you.