San Jose Rewrites its Sign Code Due to Knight-Ridder Sign

Sign showcases clever design, careful fabrication and clever installation

The following article originally appeared in the March 2000 issue of Signs of the Times magazine.

By Jennifer Flinchpaugh

To lure corporations, cities frequently offer tax breaks and other incentives. But the incentive offered to Knight-Ridder Corp., a publishing conglomerate of more than 40 dailies, was particularly unique: San Jose, CA, offered to rewrite its sign code.

In the late ’90s, Knight-Ridder decided to move its headquarters from Miami to Silicon Valley, enabling the company to better report on technological developments. Downtown San Jose, CA, seemed like a perfect location . . . almost.

Why “almost”? Because the company wished to make its new California presence known with a large, on-premise sign. But San Jose’s restrictive sign code prohibited the type of display Knight-Ridder wanted.

To ensure the company’s relocation — and the economic boon associated with the relocation — the San Jose Redevelopment Agency agreed to rewrite its sign code. However, agency officials also recommended Knight-Ridder hire Michael Manwaring of The Office of Michael Manwaring (San Francisco), a sign designer with whom they had previously worked. Familiar with Manwaring’s reputation, the Redevelopment Agency believed he would create an upscale display that would meet Knight-Ridder’s needs, while enhancing the city’s skyline.

Knight-Ridder’s design firm, Franklift Bailkind (New York), initially contacted Manwaring about the project in the summer of 1998. The firm explained Knight-Ridder was relocating into one of the nicest buildings in San Jose, and the city would consider loosening its sign-code restrictions for a well-designed, well-made sign.

“The Redevelopment Agency was hoping to set a precedent for other corporations with this sign,” explained Manwaring. “The agency could tell those companies, ‘Yes, you can have a rooftop sign, as long as its as good as the [Knight-Ridder] sign’.”

When pencil-sketching possible sign designs, Manwaring says he started by simply “putting letters on the building.” He soon realized that mounted lettering would not be the best course of action. To fit properly on the building, the lettering would be so small “you wouldn’t be able to read it from the ground,” he explained.

So instead, he created two signs for atop the building. “Knight-Ridder moved because of the energy of Silicon Valley — it’s a gold rush of sorts and really positive. I wanted to reflect that type of energy in my design,” Manwaring recalled.

Specifically, he created two curved signs that appear “‘sculptural” and ready to fly. He said, “The curve — especially the way its tied — represents a pulled bow and arrow that is ready to spring. The building itself is flat; the bow complements the flatness because it contrasts with the flatness.” But there was a problem with his design.

To ensure readability, each sign would have to be quite large — 13 x 95 ft. Because the Knight-Ridder building was in the flight path of the San Jose Airport, the signs needed to be lower to meet FAA guidelines. Manwaring then had to design the signs to cantilever over the edge of the building.

Co-designer Tim Perks, also of The Office of Michael Manwaring, took Manwaring’s concept sketches and transferred them via Form Z. Electric Image and Vectorworks software into a refined design.

“We only lowered the signs to where they absolutely had to be. We didn’t want to lower them so much that the bow would be completely surrounded by the building; then they would look more like conventional signs, and they would lose part of their energy,” Manwaring explained.

Another design challenge? The signs couldn’t be attached to the building surface itself. First, because the building owner didn’t want to deface the granite surface. And second, because there needed to be enough room for window-washing equipment to be lowered from the roof.

“Tim and I had a very clear idea of what we wanted the structures to look and feel like. How they came out is pretty close visually to our original rendering,” Manwaring recalled.

Manwaring and Perks were especially concerned about the engineering phase of the sign project. They believed the signs’ structural work was an important aspect of the visual dynamic. Although they knew a great deal of welded steel would be required to support each of KnightRidder’s two 54,000-lb. signs, they wanted the steel structures to look lightweight.

“I’ve worked with engineers and have had difficulty in achieving things I wanted to appear lightweight,” said Manwaring. “It takes extra work to get a sign looking light, while keeping it safe as it hangs over public space.”

As such, Manwaring and Perks recommended that Frankfurt Ballkind hire Ove Arup, an engineering firm in San Francisco. Ove Arup’s Kevin Clinch coordinated the engineering for the sign.

Manwaring is particularly pleased with Clinch’s work. “There’s a great deal of structure in the signs, but it’s well hidden. They still look pretty much like they were originally proposed,” Manwaring said. “We were hoping we wouldn’t have to have catwalks. But they did a good job engineering the catwalks too — they’re very light looking.”

The signs incorporate Knight-Ridder’s recently redesigned logo. But choosing the best color combination for the logo proved arduous. To facilitate the process, Arrow Sign Co. (Oakland, CA) fabricated numerous full-scale mock-ups of individual letters using various materials and types of illumination. Each mock-up was lifted, via crane, so that Manwaring, Perks and representatives from Frankfurt Ballkind and Knight-Ridder could see which colors and lighting were most readable from a distance.

Manwaring considered using Knight-Ridder’s blue and green logo colors for the sign, but he determined they would look too harsh against the building’s rich, red color.

“We tried illuminating the face with light escaping out the back; we tried halo-lit letters; we tried combining those options. We also tried white letters with blue and green lighting out the side. And we tried different silver colors, different Alucobond® backgrounds,” Manwaring said. “Every step of the way, Arrow showed us samples so we had the opportunity to adjust colors and finishes.” And whenever there was a change or adaptation, the Redevelopment Agency was informed.

After trying numerous color combinations, Manwaring, Knight-Ridder, Frankfurt Ballkind and Arrow settled on white letters with a brushed-aluminum background. So that the sign would be visually and physically light, they also decided the aluminum background would include a grid pattern of holes.

“Design went on for a long time,” said Jim Golden, Arrow’s project manager. “The result was aesthetically pleasing signs. but ones that were hard to build. Each sign’s radius only added to its complexity.”

Further complicating fabrication were the signs’ structural requirements. “San Jose’s Building Department didn’t feel they had an engineer qualified to look over the structural drawings,” explained Golden. “So they hired an outside firm that added considerable reinforcing, which our engineer felt was unnecessary.”

When the city approved the engineering, the building owner had the plans checked by yet another engineer. The owner was concerned the signs might vibrate the building’s exclusive 17th-floor club.

Interestingly, the welders had to take special qualification tests to perform the full-penetration welds used on this job. Golden said the welding used was the same type developed for offshore drilling. “Plus, the welds were ultrasonically and magnetically tested for durability by an independent testing firm. It added months to the fabrication time,” he said.

Each sign was built in three sections at Arrow, then transported last October on semi trucks to an area near the job site. Once assembled, they were moved to the Knight-Ridder building.

First and Fernando Streets were shut down on Halloween morning, while a 350-ton crawler crane — supplied by Bigge Crane and Rigging Co. (San Francisco) — hoisted each 54,000-lb. sign to the top of the building. Because each sign barely cleared the parapet, each service platform was modified for clearance. Also, the signs had to be blocked up higher than originally calculated, rotated and repositioned prior to the final lift.

In terms of placement, however, the signs fit perfectly. Two 36-in.-deep columns spaced 15 ft. apart, which extend through the roof to the building structure below, hold each sign. Arrow’s Charlie Stroud said, “The signs went up pretty smoothly: the initial bolts holding the signs in place fit very well. Installers then spent the rest of the week permanently welding the structure together.”


How have the signs been received? Very well, according to Manwaring. Not only are San Jose’s Redevelopment Agency and Knight-Ridder pleased, the signs were the subject of a very positive editorial in the local newspaper.

“An architectural critic wrote that San Jose needed more signs like the Knight-Ridder signs to look like a city. Having that kind of critical acceptance is very important to everyone,” Manwaring said. “It shows that someone understands what we’re about. It shows that someone understands how signage can add excitement to a downtown area.”


Just the Facts: Knight-Ridder’s Signage Stats

Each of Knight-Ridder’s two signs measures 13 x 95 ft., is curved to a 158-degree radius and weighs approximately 54,000 lbs.

Knight-Ridder’s “K” and “R” are 6 ft. tall. All the letters are made of: .125-in. aluminum sheet over aluminum angle frames, high-impact translucent acrylic and fluorescent lighting.

The signs’ backgrounds comprise 6-mm. aluminum composite with cut, grid-like holes.

Grade-50 steel tubes, mitered and beveled for full-penetration welds, are used in the signs’ structures.

Each weld in the signage was continuously inspected and ultrasonically tested. The welding methods were the same types used in offshore oil-well construction. Every structural welder had to pass two certification exams to pre-qualify to perform the necessary welds.

The signs are cantilevered from supports on the roof; they do not touch the building fascia. Each sign is completely supported by two 36-in.-wide flange beams, which weigh 230 lbs. per linear foot.

Manufactured in sections at Arrow Sign Co. (Oakland, CA), the sign sections were assembled in a vacant lot in San Jose and transported to Knight-Ridder fully assembled.

Each sign was lifted to the roof with a 350-ton crawler crane from Bigge Crane and Rigging Co. (San Francisco). Then, each sign was initially bolted with 48 1/8-in., high-strength galvanized bolts before being permanently welded in place.

Approximately 5,000 hours were required to manufacture the Knight-Ridder signs. The signs are now serviced from their backsides using catwalks and safety lines.


Wade Swormstedt

Wade Swormstedt

Wade is Executive Director of the Foundation for the Advancement of the Sign Industry. Formerly he was Editor and Publisher of Signs of the Times magazine.

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