It’s fitting that an old 1940s pin factory sets the stage for Dotdash, Despina Macris and Mark Ross’s wayfinding studio in Brisbane, Australia. The studio could find a needle in a haystack. Of course, it wouldn’t merely find said needle; it would work out the best way to navigate the haystack in order to reach it. It would place signage in just the right spots to lead you to the pin; design environmental graphics that convey a sense of the barn, the haystack in the barn and the pin in the haystack; and provide appropriate information—maybe which animals eat the hay or how far before you reach the needle—along the way.
The Dotdash team knows how to get you exactly where you need to be. A lot of us would be lost without its wayfinding work—literally. Whether trying to find your gate at an international airport, looking for a ward in a hospital, seeking out a bus station in a foreign city or hunting down the zebra enclosure at a zoo, wayfinders help get you there.
The design firm’s building, spread over three levels, comprises a jumble of rooms. The main action happens on the old factory floor, now an open space with desks and Macs lined up in rows. A neon O taken from a discarded hotel sign shines from the back of the space like a creative power source. A reflective yellow street sign reads “THIS IS NOT A SIGN,” but you get the feeling it really should read “DOTDASH IS NOT A SIGN STUDIO.” Getting people to understand the studio’s purpose in the relatively emergent field of wayfinding design has proven a challenge.
Macris and Ross lead a multidisciplinary team of ten designers. Senior designer Domenic Nastasi has been with them for eighteen years, and associate designer Heath Pedrola for ten. Both worked in the United Kingdom before starting at Dotdash; over the years, designers from Brazil, Canada, India, Norway, Poland and the United States have joined them. Finding people with wayfinding experience requires a worldwide search. “I’ve even done Skype interviews with designers in Iceland and Mexico,” Macris says.
Pepper, the unofficial office therapy poodle, trots across the timber floorboards to lay a ball next to Ross. Staff members are encouraged to take her for walks when they need some fresh air. At the moment, there are 50 live projects in the studio, but it’s all hands on deck to meet the deadline for a local council’s project. There are maps on screens and handsketched drawings on tables. “We’re about connecting people to place,” Macris says. “That’s what we do.”
But that’s not what they did 30 years ago. Macris and Ross met in 1984 and married in 1987. That same year, they started Dotdash in a small living room studio. The name comes from the basic building blocks of Morse code. “The idea is that you can do a lot with just a little bit,” Ross says. It also had punch. “There’s a bit of a staccato, percussive sound to it. Boom, boom. It does help define us a bit. It’s not too serious. It’s not people’s surnames all strung in a row. It also represents the business rather than the principals, and that’s important. We’re only as good as the people who are here.”
Before they met, Ross studied built environment, dance and choreography; Macris studied illustration and design. Then she worked with a multinational ad agency in Greece and Canada before starting her own fashion label in Brisbane; meanwhile, Ross was getting up to all kinds of creative mischief, including the creation of an architectural ballet involving ironing boards. But they were moving in the same circles and ended up meeting and subsequently working together on shows for festivals and nightclubs. Then they took the next big step and started their own business. From the beginning, Dotdash scooped up big clients. When Brisbane held the World Expo in 1988, the city brought the young design firm on board for laser graphics, costume design and choreography. And the studio continued to put its diverse creative skills to work. In the early days, its projects included corporate identity, environmental graphic design, installations, signage, theming and wayfinding strategy, for such diverse clients as bus terminals, hospitals, libraries, shopping centers, theaters, theme parks and universities.
As the graphic design industry grew more competitive, Dotdash saw an opportunity to specialize and ran with it, becoming a pioneer in the largely unknown field of wayfinding. “We were interested in information design and—because of our architectural connections—that whole notion of signage and wayfinding and how you build it into a space to help people use it,” Ross says. “A client might say, ‘Let’s bring Dotdash on board to design signs,’ but designing signs is not the same as wayfinding. We’d say, ‘We need something here to tell people where to go—go left, go right, go straight ahead,’ and then clients would start to realize that wayfinding is actually a pretty valuable part of the design process.”
In 1960, US architect and urban planner Kevin Lynch coined the term wayfinding in his book The Image of the City, defining it as “a consistent use and organization of definite sensory cues from the external environment.” Over the years, the concept developed into what wayfinding is known as today: information systems that guide people through a physical environment to enhance their understanding and experience of that place.
As managing codirectors, Ross focuses on proposals and strategies, and Macris heads the visual communication department. Ross doesn’t use design software, opting to sketch his concepts by hand. “The traditional skills of graphic design had no computers in sight, relying on craftsmanship, skill, and using your hands and eyes,” he says. These skills have served him well. Dotdash hit the big time with the 2000 Summer Olympic Games, hosted in Sydney. Towering yellow signs, nearly 20 feet tall and brighter than the Australian sun, guided thousands of visitors from all over the world around the city’s immense sporting venues. “We use color and scale a lot,” Ross says. “The signs were like big chess pieces—you could pick them up with a crane and move them anywhere.” He likes the chess analogy, using it to describe the kit of parts Dotdash helped develop for the games. It makes sense. Chess requires intellect, intellect and strategy—all qualities Ross applies to the design firm’s wayfinding work. The 2000 Olympics marked the beginning of a long relationship with the games, and the firm has since consulted with organizing committees for the games in Athens, Beijing, London and Sochi.
Mostly, Dotdash works on long-term projects that take years to manifest. “People don’t come to us for the ephemeral stuff,” says Macris. “Our work is usually in the ground for ten to fifteen years.” Based in Brisbane, just an hour’s flight north of Sydney, Dotdash has developed a style embedded in the climate and culture of the subtropical city it calls home.
Architect John Ilett of urban planning and design studio Lat27 has worked with Dotdash for eighteen years, including a recent collaboration for one of Brisbane’s most beloved annual events: the Royal Queensland Show. As part of its wayfinding task, Dotdash created brightly colored beacons with tops shaped like sawtooth roofs, echoing the surrounding buildings. “[The firm’s] at the top of its game in terms of wayfinding,” Ilett says. “It’s the design excellence in that company and the quality of what gets put on the ground that really sets them apart. I think its work is very fresh and contemporary. You get a feeling it’s of Australia.”
Color and craftsmanship aren’t Dotdash’s only trademarks. Leigh Abernethy, former project manager for the Sunshine Coast Regional Council, says simplicity also defines a typical Dotdash project. Bright maps that attract attention and organically shaped sculptural signs—like pebbles washed up on a beach—dot the coastal region as a result of the firm’s wayfinding work. “The team does very simple, bold color schemes and favors a simpler layout than other firms,” she says. “There’s more of an emphasis on function over form, and information always takes precedence.”
That’s because simplicity ranks high on Dotdash’s list of design principles. Ross cites Dieter Rams’s “less is more” approach as a major influence on the studio’s work. “A good solution for us is if people have done what they needed to do and gone where they needed to go without ever thinking about signage,” he says. Ironically, Ross doesn’t blame bad signage or poor wayfinding strategy whenever he gets lost. “I blame myself. I’ve usually missed a sign or I haven’t read something properly.” Perhaps this humility informs the open-mindedness that Dotdash brings to its projects.
“The firm is very structured, but really responsive to client direction and ideas in a creative way,” Abernethy says. “There’s a lot of depth in the products it provides.” Ilett agrees. “They’re very collaborative, very flexible, and very open and relaxed. Very Australian,” he says.
Although there is more awareness and appreciation for wayfinding today than ever before, some clients still take shortcuts. It’s a missed opportunity when that happens, according to Cox Rayner Architects’ design director, Casey Vallance, who has worked with Dotdash for more than a decade. “Often, people look at signage as pure pragmatics, checking information to tell you where to go,” he says. “But what Dotdash is doing is far more experiential and poetic than that.” In 2014, Dotdash won a coveted Society for Experiential Graphic Design award for a wayfinding system involving multilingual pedestrian signage in Brisbane. The jury noted, “Using five languages in a single signage design is not an easy task. … This program accomplished it simply and elegantly.”
As technology becomes more embedded into wayfinding, the big challenge for Dotdash’s future will be working with digital interface tools. “We have to grow with digital and understand more of it,” Ross says. “Demand is coming in from our clients, so we need to put the time and energy into more research and more partnerships. It’s starting to happen—that’s the new frontier for us.”
As Dotdash has proven, the world is its chessboard. It’s your move, Dotdash. ca