5Q: We talk branding, billboards and signage in Cape Town with Daniel Steyn of Second Harvest

Do you think Cape Town has found the right balance in allowing billboards and larger advertisements in public areas. If not, how should this be changed? In your view, are there examples of buildings or structures being branded in Cape Town, that have gotten things completely wrong?

Signage is by nature a communication medium that is unavoidable in the public realm (this is one of its great strengths), and therefore needs to be carefully managed. The question of managing for balance is linked to three basic points relating to how signage is perceived, namely:

1. The arbitrary distinction between 1st party and 3rd party signage. 1st party signage are signs promoting a service or product bound to their location e.g. outside a shop or business, and 3rd party signage are signs promoting a service or product unrelated to their location i.e. outdoor advertising. In terms of managing a sign’s impact on its surroundings such a distinction is arbitrary. Say you’re looking at a building with a large sign advertising Coke, now look at the same sign on the same building, in the same place except that the building houses the Coke offices – the impact does change. Ideally all signage should be managed in the same way irrespective of whether it’s 1st or 3rd party.

2. What constitutes signage clutter. The perception of signage clutter is mostly due to an over proliferation of small signs in a streetscape (election times are also a good example of this!). Yet typically only large signs are actively regulated or managed when small signs dominate. Long Street, Voortrekker Road, and just about any Main Road illustrate this. In Cape Town there are approximately 400 3rd party (outdoor advertising) signs greater than 18m2 but roughly 500 000 1st party signs (other estimates put this number even higher and closer to 750 000!), most of which are smaller than 18m2. Add to this small 3rd party signs and temporary signage that is typically small. Regulation and management of large-scale signage is important but will never free up a streetscape cluttered with small signs.

3. Recognising and understanding the value of signage. Due to it being essentially an unavoidable medium in public space, advertisers (and businesses should) attach great value to signage. As a channel to communicate a promotional or informational message it is almost without equal in terms of range and penetration – so it essential to use this space well. Public entities in their role as regulator, but even more so as a potential landlord, are able to realise great value from signage. Much of this revolves around converting the social cost of signage (its unavoidability, visual impact etc) into a public benefit (e.g. community messaging, revenue to finance municipal services and functions etc).

Effective and successful large-scale management of signage is complicated. Achieving an appropriate balance of signage is extremely challenging but can be achieved through an accessible, clear and comprehensive set of well-researched bylaws implemented in a consistent and transparent way, integrated with informative best practise guidelines that allow for management by exception.

Balance will always be subjective but what constitutes good use of the medium is not. The CTICC signage and branding is good and well executed throughout the building but I think the signage execution on the back facade facing the highway could be much better.

We have limited examples of the iconic use of signage in Cape Town and nothing like Ginza Intersection in Tokyo, Piccadilly Circus in London, Times Square in NYC or possibly Flinders Street Station in Melbourne which is maybe a more suitable comparison for Cape Town. These are vibrant public spaces and intersections serviced by multiple transit types that operate day and night – signage doesn’t necessarily make the space but complements it and contributes to its sense of place.  

What are you views of a potentially large 14x36m Picadilly-Circus style billboard on the intersection of Strand and Adderley, in light of our recent blog post, in which we gave our views.

Piccadilly Circus is very different to the Adderley / Strand Street intersection in terms of architecture, road plan, traffic type, volume, speed etc; and it is multiple large format signs adjacent to each other. Also it has a long tradition of signage, the first dating back to 1955! 

I’m not against the idea and it could lend the area some additional vibrancy, certainly as a digital sign after dark, but it should ideally include a community messaging option or demonstrate some benefit beyond its commercial value. Adderley Street has a wonderful tradition of illumination over the festive season and maybe this is something that can be capitalised on.

Public transport and public transport nodes appear to have become popular areas for advertizing e.g. taxi’s and buses wrapped in ads or rail stations featuring large billboads. Are these really effective or are they only exposing the brand to a larger audience?

Transit media is universally recognised as an extremely valuable space for advertisers as it offers a large, measurable, captive and consistent audience. An indication of this value is demonstrated by JCDecaux’s business, the world’s largest outdoor advertising company: transport advertising makes up 31% of their business. Street furniture manufacture and sales (bus shelters, bins, benches etc), primarily targeting transit areas and pedestrians, accounts for a further 49% of their business. The remaining 20% is billboards.

If projections onto Table Mountain were allowed, both commercial and non-commercial. Where would you draw the line or what are some guidelines which you will use to approach this as a project?

I am not in favour of projecting images or messages onto the face of Table Mountain. I doubt the uneven surface would make it effective beyond its initial novelty value. I believe that coloured floodlight filters have been used for events and causes e.g. World AIDS Day – this could be linked to brand advertising as a means to raise revenue to finance Table Mountain operations and maintenance e,g. financing the electricity bill for the lights . This opportunity would need to be properly packaged, valued according to the market and comprehensive guidelines put in place. The mountain is already a dominant presence in our visual lexicon. It appears in countless logos and is used extensively in promotional material – I’d like to think we have more to offer as a city.

Do billboards only present a cost to society? Can the revenues generated by a good signage/billboard policy really outweigh this cost? Can you provide some Cape Town specific examples?

In general terms signage represents a cost society by virtue of it being unavoidable. Some of this cost we readily accept because its benefit to us is clear e.g. traffic signs, a road name sign or a business name. For some signs this benefit is not clear or does not extend to us. When we are aware of the public or social benefit linked to a sign – attitudes change. E.g. Many schools have externally facing billboards on their property (i.e. not directed at students). These schools will benefit from a revenue share with the media company. A similar situation exists for non-profit organisations. Community organisations and places of worship. Many outdoor advertising bylaws recognise this opportunity for these groups and consequently allow them flexibility to realise this additional revenue.

Using signage to generate additional revenue from property or infrastructure assets to finance the development, operations and maintenance costs associated with these is well-established internationally but less so here in SA. E.g. Cities across the world offer outdoor advertising companies long-term advertising concessions in return for the design, implementation, financing and ongoing operations and maintenance of their street furniture (bus shelters, benches, bins, kiosks etc). A city might also earn a revenue share from the associated advertising in addition to benefiting from extensive public infrastructure amounting to millions of dollars in value. This is JCDecaux’s (mentioned earlier) core business. It is also a large part of what our company, Second Harvest, deals with in a consultancy capacity for the public and private sector.

Cape Town International Airport, and ACSA in general, is an example of this locally. They have chosen to maximise, rather than optimise their signage opportunities, in their quest for additional revenue at the expense of creating a highly cluttered and confusing and largely illegal external signage environment. They would be able to derive more revenue with fewer signs through proper planning – therein offering a more welcoming and more easily navigable environment.

About Second Harvest

Second Harvest is a full-service international signage and infrastructure development consultancy based in Cape Town. SH primarily works in a specialist capacity with property and infrastructure owners, managers and developers in the public and private sectors to help them realise the full value of their assets. SH services include: Signage Master Planning, Research, Analysis, Strategy, Reporting, Design, Implementation and Management.