Monique Chambers interviews Mark Lightfoot from UUX.
Full transcript of the interview is below:
Monique: Welcome to this week’s interview with me Monique Chambers and entrepreneur Mark Lightfoot. Now this time you got another hat on that every time I meet you I think you have another hat. And this time is urban UX.
Mark: That’s right. I’m saying one hat.
Monique: No !! Don’t spoil it. Don’t spoil it. But this urban UX, what’s that all about? Because
you’ve got a background in design and product creation. So what’s urban UX all about?
Mark: So I’ve been running a design company for 21 years Matthew mantra. That’s where a lot of people have come across us. Over the years, we’ve done lots of branding, advertising, we did websites we even had a 1.1awards, the Business Awards and again, it’s for a couple of apps shipping app and a catering app. And all through last 16 years, we’ve done signage. We’ve been doing way finding and signage. Providing signage to generally large corporate projects. Best example would be Golden sand, Radisson.
Monique: Okay, all of the stuff inside and outside?
Mark: Wherever the signage at the Golden sands we were involved. So we did a huge project
with Winston the time 2005, the deadline was the Queen’s visit. Monique: Queen this way [Laughs]
Mark: Yes. And that involved probably about two years of pre sales because it was such a big project where we were able to work with the team there and develop samples and look at different signage design, not just the way finding but the actual physical signage.
Mark: And we had I think in total about 1200 signs including the all the directional signage within the property. The front of house, the back of house as well, the spa, the electronic signage, there’s exterior signage, there’s all the health and safety signage as well, the Escape Plan for everything etc. So I mean, I got a lot of experience very much thrown in the deep end because it was our first major project. Got lots of experience developing the room plan, something you don’t really think about.
Monique: It’s true actually.
Mark: But if you think about the Golden Sands it sort of goes around the corridor you have rooms on the seaside and the land side. And the orientation of the room plans has to change depending on the room and your location of course you can’t just pick up the same plan in every room so really good experience, got my hands really dirty with that and then from that we carried on doing other large projects. The letter, waterfront Costner, waterfront, Deloitte, it’s funny, I’ve started to remembers places that I’ve done the signage for global capital. They turned up most iconic design it for this place. Oh, bingo. list in your car. So as you drive around, yeah that’s one of my sons and show my kids. Infact my kids are quite funny. They go down as one of your site. Oh, because I’ve gotten to recognize the different shapes.
And so basically to go back to the question, what is urban UX? Cut long story short, about a year and a half ago, we realized that this was a really really important part of the business and we weren’t focusing on it enough. And it’s, I think also a natural evolution of the business design has changed so much in the last 20 years. We’re now at a point where graphic designs are commoditized.
Mark: We specialize in it and urban UX gives us that platform to specialize our design where it’s applying design, graphic design still. So but it’s information design, a bit of psychology thrown in there, human behavior, how people find their way around buildings, how people use space and urban UX is the way forward for us as a company.
Monique: No pun intended. [Laughs] Mark: No, not at all.
Monique: But do you think about this, like I said, with normal graphic design, there’s now these programs you can download and people everyone thinks it’s like a designer one.
Mark: Well design has become commoditized. If you want to build a website called wicks. And you’ve got an AI system that does it all. Yeah, you’ve got 99 designs, if you want to get it by a logo for Yeah, $5 or whatever.
Monique: Now this is way at least it keeps your entrepreneurial spirit happy because you’re still learning as there are different types of applications or different things you can sign and different
materials and although these things you have to consider backlighting up lighting, side lighting, whatever all of that stuff plays into it as well.
Mark: Yeah I think one of the most exciting things about what we’re doing for us as a company is that we’re distributors for Danish brand Module X. It’s one of the oldest signage companies in the world.
Monique: Okay what do they do because we wouldn’t know that there’s no normal bodies what do they do
Mark: They developed a design system so they have a full industrial process that supports the production of different sign family. So different materials did like glass, steel, aluminium materials and they have a sort of a product-eyed approach to signage. So we don’t really have to worry too much about taking decisions on the size or the shape. It’s predefined. What we are concerned about is how can we use those signs to help people find their way around unfamiliar spaces.
Monique: So they’re in Denmark so they don’t get the same kind of sunshine that we do so do you have things you have to consider like sun fading things, shadows, that kind of stuff ?
Mark: Yes all of that is baked into their process, their design approach. It’s an industrial design approach. So I mean, Module X is 40 years old. It was created by the Christians and family, the family behind Lego. So if you think of Lego and the modular approach to building blocks it’s the same.
Monique: [Laughs] Oh Sorry. I’m just having a whole vision of their building being made of Lego. Okay
Mark: So if you think of Lego and their modular approach to toys, you can build anything, it’s similar, in a way there’s a modular approach to signage. Okay. so yeah, they’ve been around for 40 years there. They are present in I think around 50 countries so we’re part of a huge network so we can benefit from their knowledge expertise and in fact in January we’re going to be formally appointed the Module X partner after 16 years which is great because we’ve been with them for 16 years, or since we did Golden Sands. We’re going to be sort o formerly the partner.
Monique: So is there like trends and fashions that happen in signs because you know Malta is very famous for the old fashioned is beautiful black red and glittery. I love those signs. I love that this one I want to steal. But is there a trend at the moment for signs that is there something that you know used to be perspective attached and is there something out cut out metal? Is there
something that people are like everybody goes for, you know, there’s trends in lime green or bright orange or
Mark: I have to say Module X signage is the trend. [Laughs]
But no seriously, we have made sure that where we find prospects and pins, we replace them. Because they are not functional, they are not cost effective and I find them very messy so personally I’m on a crusade to rid Malta of prospects and pins.[Laughs]
Monique: So what’s your favorite material to work with? Is there such a thing?
Is there something that you think Ah yes that type, you know, multi stone type of building just does it or it all depends on the color and everything
Mark: It depends on the building so there’s one of the sign families is called Messenger and it has a very particular design it’s got rounded edges and when you put it up on a wall the way it’s designed is it just seems to float. So it’s got this lovely sort of shadow effect, you get this like a feathered edge. And it just looks stunning from any angle. So yeah, that’s the signage. And in the last year, we’ve added into the signage and that sort of user experience work, we’ve added urban street furniture in association with an Italian company called Metallica, who are I think probably Europe’s number one. They’re also present in about 40 countries.
Monique: So are these things like bus stops and billboard type things or what do you mean?
Mark: Extraordinary transit furniture, because there’s not really a big market for transit furniture here because we’ve got one 1% you know, but the kind of elements that were able to bring to play into an urban environment, streetscape or an open Park, or you know corporate
Monique: We don’t have open parks either. [Laughs]
Mark: That’s something else I’ll come back, and things like benches, bins, bicycle stands and bicycle storage and ashtrays, railings, planters, so these elements if you think about you’ll sea benches in Malta but they tend to be fairly standard
Monique: Old fashioned
Mark: Yeah old fashioned and kind of wood and the urban street furniture gives us a way to look at and consider user experience along with the signage.
Monique: So what sort of exams you’re talking about doc one which is you know, really shaping up nicely I have to say my go down there quite often and it really with the fountain and the grass whatever it’s actually looking really nice so what have you done down there.
Mark: So on the university site we’ve recently put in a series of benches, planters and bins and what was extraordinary is that the day that we were installing the benches, literally within half an hour of putting the benches in place they were covered in people because it’s very much a thoroughfare you can get over the bridge and then walk down through the arch and there were students, people walking with the pushchairs. While I was installing I had some really nice comments from people walking past saying amazing wood and beautiful benches.
Monique: Okay I’m going to being used already. Mark: We also did a job at 14 East.
Monique: Where’s that?
Mark: In Gzira.
Mark: Likewise benches were put in and within half an hour they were being used which is what we want. It’s amazing, these very small embellishments can make a huge difference to the way that the public space functions.
Monique: A community feeling, everything you feel like you can sit down, you’re not rushing this yeah. Because you probably didn’t think about it now, but even to walk through those spaces before and thought, right, there’s no way to stop. It must not be a safe place to stop or Yeah, there’s a reason why they don’t want me to stop here. Whereas when there’s a bench it’s an invitation to have a gossip, have a sandwich etc.
Mark: I think one of the most interesting things about public space and what it does to an environment is very much about branding. It creates a pull. It pulls people in. So if you’ve got to imagine a wonderful public square like Pienza in Italy, it’s a nice environment. It’ll draw people in, it sees people coming in, more people coming in and then you’ve got shops, got bars and restaurants, there’s a multiplier facts and evidence street furniture is very much a part of that equation.
Monique: So is it all signage and furniture related or could you do things for pop ups and things like that if there are, you know, for the we have so many festers and things just wondering if that is something you do?
Mark: I think one of the things that we’ve realized in all these years of working, it’s very easy to get involved in lots of things and one of the key things about urban UX is super niche focus.
Mark: And we’re focusing very much on internal and external signage, urban street furniture. I’m not saying that we won’t look at things for example things like lighting as well and paving and different types of materials.
Monique: Okay, because they are important.
Mark: And that could very well come into the business as well. But as far as signage is concerned,
keeping away from, for example, shop facades. There’s so many people out there who do a really good job of that we don’t need to get into that space. Yeah, and it’s kind of counterintuitive, but the more that you niche down the more of an expert you become and the more valuable you become to your customers.
Monique: Absolutely and being a one off in Malta is needed, actually. Because we do drown in competition. We do have this sort of mentality it feels like I’ll open the hairdresser and therefore you must open hairdresser or right next door to me, you know, there’s really random don’t understand how it works.
But what’s about the future? Have you got any big projects or there’s big ideas coming up or things that we should be looking at when we’re looking at signage thing, Okay, that’s smart, or is it just a subliminal effect it has on people that you’re aiming for that you can see something clearly, like said, any angle, any light to Is there something we should be learning from?
Mark: I think the key takeaway with the signage and something that we’ve said quite often. A sign should answer the question before it’s been asked. Okay. So you anticipate the needs of the user, so they’re not stopping to say, oh, where do I go next? It should be a seamless sort of hand over from one passage to the next.
Monique: Do you do car parks, please do you do car parks? [Laughs] Mark: One of the things we’ve realized is that car parks in Malta, I’m probably gonna piss
someone off here, but they are an absolute disaster.
Monique: It’s really hard to get out and to find your car and the lift corresponding with the level of the floor that you’re on.
Mark: They’re not designed for the user. They are designed to maximize the space. You’ve got financial considerations but the end of the day I think this is a really important point to consider. Very often a car park is the first experience someone will have of your place.
Monique: There are places I don’t go because of the car parking Mark: Yeah and that can be really detrimental
Monique: And you’re right I don’t think people consider it but there are certain shopping areas that you then have restaurants I just don’t go somebody else has to drive I find it just too traumatic to try and find my car after.
Mark: And it’s a very common complaint. I think what’s really fascinating if you go on Instagram or Pinterest and search for car parks, there are some extraordinary designs. Germany, Australia has incredible car parks really incredible. I mean bright, well lit, very clear graphics, lots of fun as well.
Monique: I think a lot of or somebody should do maybe they do it you can tell us put a little QR code or something on the floor you park your car so we actually can take you back to your car. Yeah because what’s worse is when you’re overseas and you’ve hired a car so you’re not even familiar with your car. There’s plenty of other cars like that car when you go to the states or whatever, you will have these massive things but there’s millions of the same car and you just can’t find.
Mark: I think we’ve got to get the actual car park design right. First is definitely a lack of pedestrian signage within car parks and it goes back to the name of the company, The Urban User Experience very focused on urban user experience, not customer experience.
Monique: So how do you check that? So do you do focus groups? Do you walk around car parks or shopping centers or hotels and say, now what or do you make the assumption yourselves.
Mark: We make assumptions and then test our assumptions and talking to people and also observation,
but we’re starting from a very low baseline. So there are incremental changes that you can make which is a no brainer kind of thing. And you don’t even need to ask people.
You can see refining a good process at this stage we’re actually establishing processes to ensure that the people can find their way in and out of spaces.
Monique: I was in a relatively new car park the other day and I wasn’t in my college and my partner’s college is quite big and where it was saying exit I was literally realizing after the third time I passed the car that I wasn’t exiting and it was quite stressful to get around these curves. I have a mini so my car is especially small but this was not an oversized car but a regular sized car and it just terrified me and I thought how do I get out of this place so you have to have something luminous or whatever pointing me to make it really easy instead of me realizing after three goes you’ve seen that smashed up car three times now you surely like how to get out.
Mark: The environment and the ambiance and the fact that walls are gray, they’re not bright with the lighting
Monique: Makes you more frustrated, more stressful actually. Yes it adds to that sort of experience of claustrophobia. Especially when everything else is so sunny and bright outside, you’d expect. And what about floor signs? Do you do anything of that kind of things? People never look up anymore. They’re all looking down on the floor. Oh, think I seriously think is a good idea. Yeah, there was on their phone. So, you know, to have directional signage on the floors. I think it’s a good idea.
Mark: Yes it is good.
Monique: Okay good pay me for that later. [Laughs] And what other things do you have to consider? So in Malta, we have different because we have lots of tourists. Yeah, so there’s no assumption you can’t say, Oh, the Maltese think like this. So you have to have knowledge of others’ psyches as well or it’s actually most people at the same
when it comes down to whether on holiday we’re all a bit daft and we don’t know which way to head for the pool. How do you distinguish because one week you could be observing Germans the next week you could be observing Italian so maybe they think differently. Is that the case?
Mark: I think one of the one of the things that we do is if we’re considering a multi lingual environment, you’re using pictograms or icons. So there’s an international set of icons which show smoking bathrooms left stairs etc. those sorts of things to help people find their way around.
Mark: Apart from that multi lingual sign sometimes two or three languages it really depends on
the environment. If it’s a business office space then it is normally in English.
Monique: And I know this isn’t something you do but road signs in Maltese? Come on. You know some of the names of places that you actually never refer to them like that. It’s just really unfair so if anybody’s listening that’s in charge of those kinds of signs; Please, change. [Laughs] I mean airport you can kind of work out but hospital is Mater dei. I mean, who knows that that’s what our hospital is called? It’s really unfair. Come on guys play the game you’re supposed to be helping people get where they’re supposed to be going.
And I like we still have two names for everywhere as well you know so I think we’re there just to confuse people and have more traffic on the roads. So what’s your favorite type of signage to do? Is it big signs or is it directional?
Mark: I think interior way finding because it’s like a puzzle because you’re connecting someone from an entrance to a destination, you have to include directional signage, decision point. Okay, so you’ve got to get someone from a front door reception up to the 10th floor office 10-15 and you’ve to get them out as well.
Monique: Well, I’m thinking of some clients for university of Malta I think they need something like this. I mean you need a degree to actually find a way around it in some cases.
Mark: I mean there are a lot of really interesting projects coming up in the next two years and partly that’s what drove us to reconsider signage and eventually create UUX as a company.
Monique: All these extra developments extra two floors extra you know much more building inside.
Mark: Yeah and commercial developments going on and I mean that’s a whole other discussion but you need good signage I hope people find a way around in out and also good furniture so for us that’s very much a driver.
Monique: Have you considered airports as well? Not Malta airport, because Malta airport is actually very comfortable but, there’s psychology behind why they have signs, how they do and why they have seats, how they do it. I mean, it’s not just like, oh, there’s a space. Stick some seats there it’s actually quite interesting when you look into the background of these things
Mark: Yeah, lots of design decision has been taken about where things [Monique interrupts]
Monique: And the motivation for that design is. It’s not just because it looks pretty\, but you always think although it’s more practical because there’s a sticky outfit it’s actually you know, you have to walk past this to get there and you’re always within 50 meters of one of those or whatever it is so
Mark: We’re just talking there about is a functional approach to design so all the functional elements considered and if those are done properly, then the form looks like is a natural evolution because you’ve questioned and questioned and questioned the functionality rather than the other way around, which is very superficial oh it looks lovely, it doesn’t actually work.
Monique: You are calling me superficial? [Laughs] I do a lot of it the wrong way around. I think something’s really pretty. And then realize, yes, you can’t open the drawers, you know, whatever. So yeah, I would be a terrible, terrible designer.[Laughs]
Because I just like it to look nice. And I don’t want to go through that whole process. I think you have the patience of a saint. Anything else you want to tell us about you UUX? Are there projects that we should look out for this coming year? So for 2019, is there stuff that you’re working on already that’s going to be up in lights that we can talk about?
Mark: Well, this is hopefully a project we’re going to do in the UK. I can’t really say who but that’s also exciting as well that we are kind of spreading our wings a bit.
Mark: And bringing our experience to bear on overseas projects as well. Monique: That’s very cool well done.
Mark: And in terms of local projects, I’ve been talking to most of the big projects that are under development and getting good interest people realizing that what we’re talking about is something that’s needed.
Monique: And important not just seeing it as some afterthought.
Mark: Yes it’s not superficial. It’s not something you stick on at the end of a project. It’s
something that you need to consider at the beginning.
Monique: Okay. So if anybody’s thinking about signs out there what’s the worst mistake you can make? Is there like a color that you absolutely shouldn’t use in Malta because people when they’re starting with their branding, they might not be thinking about signage or whatever, like new hotels or whatever. Is there like a yellow or something that you know, just never works. Don’t do it. Is there something?
Mark: Probably the piece of matter advice I would give is don’t think of signage as decoration. Monique: Okay.
Mark: I once had a client asked me whether I could match the signage to the curtains. Monique: I love that already.
Mark: So no. It’s ultimately the function and in that situation, I probably do white stickers on a gray background just to make it work.[Laughs] Monique: Because I know, yellow on screen and whatever never works, but people insist.
Mark: Again it’s the function aspect. With signage, what you’re looking at is contrast between the information and the panel on which it sits, and then the panel in the wall. So obviously, because the panel is something as freestanding, you need contrast so you’re optimizing for visibility.
Monique: And is there stuff that you know because one of my things is things going out of style so you can really date things and some things are wonderful. Some signs like I said, the black red and gold glitter, fantastic. They can stay forever but then you get these other things that purple and lime green. It might just be personal taste. But you know this fonts you can hardly read and they’re kind of out now they were 90s.
Mark: You obviously didn’t talk to us. [Laughs]
Monique: Yeah. There are things that sort of go out of fashion so having something that stays current. Because it must be an expensive business. It’s not something you can just do willy nilly and do again in two years time.
Mark: I think if we go back to the UUX’s heritage, Matthew, my business partner, is a brilliant designer and the work that he’s done 20 years ago still to this day looks as good as it did was still fresh. So for example, a logo or a design there’s a timelessness, the timeless quality to what he’s done and also I’ve done a few logos as well which stood the test of time.
If think of Philipantane, it’s like a stamp logo 17 years ago, and it’s still exactly relevant today, it’s not gone out of fashion because it was never designed to be fashionable. I think what you’re referring to is a femoral quality.
Monique: Yes and I mean personal thing, it looks like bubble gum.
Mark: I think the way we approach signage is to reduce something to its absolute simplicity. Not to be simplistic about it, but stripping away anything that’s extra to get the essence you know, is it communicating? Is it telling me where I need to go? Is it on brand? Is it visible? Even the same with I mean with furniture as well? Yeah, the outdoor furniture it’s gotta be functional. Don’t want plastic wear, red plastic sheet whatever.
Okay well I’m going to start looking at things a bit more closely. Thank you very much.
Mark: Mark Lightfoot from UUX and where can we find out more about you is it uux.com ? Mark: .mt
Monique: There you go. so uux.com.mt
Mark: Thanks very much