Corbin Design makes career out of telling clients where to go

Signs. Such a part of life, regularly needed, sometimes detested, often overlooked.

While the public may have a love-hate relationship with the signs along our roadways, in our towns and generally wherever we go, the designers at Corbin Design in Traverse City are happiest when their work creating signs goes unnoticed. Corbin Design's signs go beyond the standard post and pole varieties. What Corbin does from its downtown office on East Front Street is design entire systems of what they call "wayfinding signage." Not surprisingly, these help people find their way by steering them toward their destination with all manner of customized signs and other tools that tell them where to go, what to do and more.

Wayfinding systems can include large roadside signs, smaller signs posted and painted near and on buildings and along paths, and pedestrian-focused kiosks that can tell people where things are so they can decide whether to walk, drive or hop a bus or train. Those signs and kiosks are often paired with printed materials, websites or smartphone apps that further break down the places people are visiting and traveling to.

"Good design goes unnoticed," says Corbin Design president and senior designer Mark VanderKlipp. "If you're a patient and you've come to the hospital and you're not stressed out, you may not even realize or register that it was signs that got you there. If that's the case, we know we've done our job."

The artists, designers and project managers at Corbin put creativity, marketing, branding, even mood-setting and fun, into signs that could otherwise just be boring old signs. The company tagline: People Get Lost. We Fix That.

"What it's really about is communication to visitors at a lot of different points in a journey," VanderKlipp says. Besides wayfinding, a field that Corbin helped pioneer, the firm also provides environmental graphic design.

Corbin Design's work can be seen on corporate and university campuses, through arts and entertainment areas and at medical centers around the country. If you've been to the Milwaukee Riverwalk or the Milwaukee Art Museum, you've seen Corbin's work. JW Marriott in Grand Rapids is a Corbin Design client too. Soaring Eagle Casino's wayfinding signs were a Corbin creation, as were wayfinding systems in more than 60 cities, including Raleigh, Atlanta, Oklahoma City, Georgetown, S.C., Sault St. Marie and Indianapolis--the system here was updated in advance of this year's Super Bowl.

Even General Motors knew where to turn to when they needed help with their sign project in Troy, Mich.

"My compliments to the chef," states the General Motors' testimonial. "Corbin was right on the mark (so to speak) and are to be congratulated for your listening and problem-solving capabilities. Of course, we knew you were good when we hired you. It is exciting and should get even more so."

Signage at Penn State, the University of Albany, Kelly Services and Eli Lilly all are Corbin-designed, as are those at St. Joseph Mercy hospitals, Scripps Health Care Network in San Diego, Clarian Arnett Hospital in Indiana. The list goes on, and the projects keep coming for the 12-person firm that was started in 1976 by Jeff Corbin, an architect who took the company's work into the graphic design field. VanderKlipp took over as president in 2003. Corbin retired three years later. About 13 years ago, VanderKlipp says, "we decided to go all about wayfinding."

Each customer comes to Corbin with the same general request--to help people from getting lost--but special needs, and Corbin's designers go to those customers, spend time as visitors would, talk to locals in government, business and the community and figure out how wayfinding can bring them the business and visitor or customer experience they seek.

"The advantage is many times we're first timers. If there's a shopping area no one goes to, how do we get them there?" VanderKlipp says. "If there's a bar or entertainment district, we want to get people there. We work with marketing groups, business leaders, chambers of commerce, stakeholders. We really get an idea of how they want to present their best face to that visitor."

Besides showing clients what signs should say, they show them what they should be made of to last, and which ones will require more maintenance, perhaps helping them install signs that are environmentally-friendly or more affordable.

Every day thousands of visitors to cities, hospitals, college campuses, workplaces and tourist attractions in cities coast to coast use the wayfinding systems Corbin has created.

"When we are directing a project and we need to capture the culture of that city or university, that's where the creativity comes in. There's a fine line between doing our job really well so it goes unnoticed and also getting out that message, that identity that people want to get out there," says VanderKlipp.

Not knowing the place where their projects unfold is the norm, but Corbin's work can also be found on the streets of downtown Traverse City--right outside their offices, actually.

Wayfinding systems commissioned by the city's Downtown Development Authority direct visitors to the city's warehouse district, old town district, Old Town and Front Street shopping and dining districts.

"It was different for us because we know the city so well. We don't often run into that. Usually we're going into a city or institution knowing little or nothing; Traverse City was different. With these we get to see our work in action every day," says VanderKlipp.

Before the system was in place, many visitors thought the extent of downtown shopping and dining was Front Street. Not only does the new signage direct people to merchants in all three districts, it pulls them in from the highways and main roadways leading into downtown.

"What it's really about is communication to visitors at a lot of different points in a journey," he says. "One of the goals is to reduce the number of signs: you know how people throw signs up and then they realize they're not accomplishing what they want to accomplish or they can't withstand the elements or they're impractical, you end up with a lot of unnecessary signs."

In Mount Clemens, the county seat of Macomb County outside of Detroit and one of the state's most populous counties, Corbin's work is in progress. A half-million dollar project pulls people into downtown from main roadways and directs them to parking and destinations, and provides them with other information once there. Arthur Mullen, director of the city's Downtown Development Authority, says the idea is to leave visitors with the memory of a visit being convenient, enjoyable and easy--especially to first-timers.

VanderKlipp says business is good as more clients have realized the right kind of signage is connected to quality customer service.

"If your signage is wrong," he says, "you're missing an opportunity to make the experience richer."

Kim North Shine is a Michigan-based freelance writer.

Photos by Brian Confer.

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