Wayfinding Company Growing Despite National Health Care Uncertainty

Initially offering basic web and marketing design for Michigan-based companies like Herman Miller, Corbin Design’s focus has shifted over the years to almost exclusively wayfinding consulting and signage design. Clients include more than 135 medical centers, 70 cities and towns, and 45 colleges and universities.

The design team is extremely busy and Corbin Design President Shelley Steele predicts steady growth for 2017. But a slight downward trend in health care-related projects is fueling a little caution within the company. Steele attributes this to uncertainty over the current administration’s proposed changes to the health care bill. A reluctance on the part of medical centers to spend money right now has put certain projects on hold.

“That forces us to look at those other markets: universities and civic,” she said. “The civic, the cities, are really taking off right now; we’ve got a lot of potential projects there, so we must shift a little bit to make sure we keep our staff. We have to make sure (we have) enough of the other type of work to sustain us.”

Steele expects these projects will help them ride out any recession they may encounter. The company has seen an increase in proposals for smaller cities, including a recent one for Roanoke, Va. Generally, it’s small- to medium-sized cities wanting to create that first impression for visitors that find money for wayfinding projects, Steele said.

Over the last five to six years, many bigger health care systems have merged under the same umbrella, providing purchasing power to buy and rebrand for less. Steele expects that while new construction may fall off, there will continue to be investment in the wayfinding and signage systems at smaller campuses.

“It’s less money but still making a very big impact on some of these other campuses,” said Steele.

The team bumps up against stiff competition. In health care, it’s usually one or two big players. The same for civic or trail systems. But Corbin Design has made a name for itself as a major player in wayfinding, with designers working on projects across the country. Corbin Design was featured alongside Memorial Medical Center in the November 2016 issue of Healthcare Design Magazine in an article titled, “Five Building Blocks for Wayfinding.”

Transition, Reorganization

The past year has proven a time of change and growth for Corbin Design. The addition of support staff presented an opportunity for the team’s three top designers, Clint Douthitt, Jeff Frank and Hesper Smyth, to move into leadership roles.

With more than 46 years of combined wayfinding experience, the designers work alongside and mentor other team players. A new culture of collaboration within the company on diverse projects encourages across-the-board experience, said Steele.

Corbin Design employs 11 and expects to hire a full-time environmental graphic designer within the next month. They are also searching for a project manager to join their team.

Always reinventing and learning, Steele said they are very careful to ensure the cultural fit of a prospective employee. The goal is to add one person a year to continue to build and train a cohesive team.

“It’s working out well; we are very busy and profitable,” Steele said. “But we are conservative about hiring the next person. Training is essential before bringing on someone else.”

When Corbin Design became employee-owned in 2002, each staff member was offered an increased stake in the success of the firm and its clients.

“Hiring a designer who is purely billable is more profitable for the company. It’s allowed designers to move up,” said Steele.

Current Projects

The Midwest is proving to be Corbin Design’s strongest foothold right now. In Michigan, projects include work in Grand Rapids, Lansing and Detroit, including the Lansing Capitol Complex district, Lansing Community College and Lansing Center. In Grand Rapids, the team worked on Mercy Health St. Mary’s, the City’s downtown wayfinding system and the JW Marriott hotel. In Detroit, Corbin Design received commendation for its work on the Cobo Center.

Locally, Corbin has completed wayfinding signage for the Tart Trails in Traverse City and Bay Area Transportation Authority (BATA).

Steele says establishing a presence in the Canadian market has proven tougher due to the fluctuating dollar and difficulty obtaining work permits.

Corbin’s current healthcare wayfinding programs in the U.S. include: Asante Health in Medford, OR; Deaconess Gateway Hospital, Newburgh, IN; Grady Memorial Hospital, Atlanta, GA; Hennepin County Medical Center, Minneapolis, MN; Lee Memorial at Coconut Point in Estero, FL; Mary Washington Hospital, Fredericksburg, VA; Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas, Rogers, AR; Knight Cancer Research Building, Portland, OR; and OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center, Rockford, IL.

The concept of wayfinding merges information with visual design, creating synergy between different destinations, essentially helping people to navigate complex environments with ease. Defined as “direction for people in motion,” the process involves verbal and visual cues that are integrated throughout an organization. These include brand, visitor communications, architecture, interiors, or lighting and landscape design.

“Now part of the universal health care system, signage needs to be logical,” said Steele.

But signage is just one piece of the picture. Interior designers take care of the layout inside facilities: furniture, color and themes. The team will incorporate color palettes into projects to complement the interiors and overall facility design.

“Terminology must be consistent across all media,” Steele said. “Sometimes hospitals have three or four sign systems in place, which can be confusing and cluttered. The goal is to reduce signs; to simplify the environment. Is the parking labeled? How can we tie an entrance sign to the elevator, use color; that is the structure of wayfinding. It’s applied to science but also to their website.”

Other communication tools include art and pictures like Munson Medical Center’s purple pillar, murals and combined cherry and boat themes to help people remember where they are going.