A wayfinding project enhances identity in Mount Prospect, Illinois.

In Mount Prospect, Illinois, a Chicagoland commuter community, custom maps outline points of interest, with modern graphic icons identifying types of businesses—burger joints, coffee shops, skateboard shops. Other pictographs identify landmarks, such as the water tower, the train station, and the public library. (Francisco Lopez de Arenosa for Valerio Dewalt Train/Media Objectives)

The Metra Commuter Rail, one of the busiest commuter-rail lines in the United States, cuts through the middle of Mount Prospect, Illinois. With a population of 54,000, the village is a desirable place for commuters to live. It offers tree-lined streets and a well-regarded public school system, all only a 45-minute Metra ride to Chicago’s urban core from the downtown station.

But even though village officials had been actively developing the downtown for decades, commuters returning from work tended to disembark, head straight for their cars, and drive home. Residents perceived the area as a place to pass through, not as a destination.

With the benefit of tax increment financing, the village had begun replacing some low-scale structures and large surface parking lots with multifamily housing, commercial uses, and mixed-use development. In 2012, the village engaged a planning and design team led by the Lakota Group, a Chicago-based urban planning firm, to complete a downtown implementation plan to guide the process of encouraging more transit-oriented development, maintaining the downtown’s pedestrian scale, and improving signage.

Three years later, the village hired Chicago-based Media-Objectives, Valerio Dewalt Train’s in-house experiential design studio, to assist in the design and implementation of a downtown wayfinding signage program. The program needed to create a sense of place and provide residents and visitors clear directions to parking, points of interest, general business areas, special events, and services.

Mount Prospect’s existing signs were small and oddly placed, and they blended into the surroundings. There were cases of redundancy and contradiction due to the gradual posting of signs over many years.
Parking, in particular, needed to be addressed. Even though downtown had plenty of parking spots, many residents believed it was hard to find parking there. In some instances, two signs said the same thing but in different ways. In other cases, adjacent signs gave two different time limits or made it seem as if only public employees could use a parking structure that actually was open to everyone.

Interviews with residents revealed that those who did visit downtown navigated based on landmarks, such as the bright blue water tower visible from the train or the Veterans Memorial Band Shell. At the same time, downtown was changing, with buildings being torn down and new construction going up, much of it in red or brown brick. The area needed a stronger sense of place.

Village leaders had recently embraced a new branding campaign that incorporated bright colors—orange, yellow, green, and purple. The new signs incorporate the same colors, adding a lively counterpart to the downtown’s many brick buildings and drawing on color’s ability to aid memory. (Francisco Lopez de Arenosa for Valerio Dewalt Train/Media Objectives)

In response, the new wayfinding program placed signage along major connection streets to better define the downtown area while creating a visual identity based on abstracted illustrations of what being in the city is like. Custom maps outline points of interest, with modern graphic icons identifying types of busines—burger joints, coffee shops, skateboard shops. Other pictographs identify landmarks, such as the water tower, the Metra station, and the library.

The system consists of a kit of parts, including easily updatable sign panels to highlight events such as Friday night concerts at Village Hall’s Centennial Green.

Village leaders had recently embraced a new branding campaign that incorporated bright colors—orange, yellow, green, and purple. The new signs incorporate the same colors, adding a lively counterpart to the downtown’s many brick buildings and drawing on color’s ability to aid memory.

To inform commuters as they walk from car to train, new kiosks at strategic locations increase visibility of downtown destinations.

“The downtown wayfinding signage has helped bring a greater sense of identity to our community,” says Nellie Beckner, assistant village manager.

“It embodies the experience of being in downtown Mount Prospect and creates a sense of place,” she notes. “Since the installation of the new signs, more residents know where to hang out in the village core. In tandem with a variety of efforts to enhance downtown, the wayfinding improvements played a key role giving this village a sense of identity all its own—no longer just another stop on the Metra line.”

JOE LAWTON is principal of Media-Objectives and ANTHONY VALERIO is an architect and associate at Valerio Dewalt Train.