Show me the way: wayfinding
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By Sophie Matthews-Paul
19 March 2012
Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport is an excellent example of clear wayfinding signs
Are wayfinding signs becoming too complicated and, perhaps, a victim of too many of the intricacies of digital production? After all, these displays are intended to help people find their way to a destination but, today, there are many which seem to serve to distract rather than to inform. And these are the examples that are failing to serve their purpose from an informative viewpoint.
Unlike traffic signs, many wayfinding options aren't privy to strict criteria and restrictions in design and layout and can all too often be represented in a manner deemed fit by the design fraternity. Often coming under an umbrella which encompasses branding, applying directional intent can become swallowed up in other graphics, leaving lost souls frustrated as they try to navigate their way to their destinations.
True, local councils have their own ideas, and there are acts that now abound so that partially sighted people can interpret information but, as in so many areas of life, the more technology there is available to produce something then the more complex it can become. Wayfinding displays should be driven by simplicity and clarity, and not peppered with fancy text and graphics; after all, there are plenty of other opportunities where more heterogeneous design skills can be put on show.
Government organisations and large companies tend to have their own sets of rules for the design of wayfinding displays. Rather like with branding, the intention is to provide a commonality which is instantly recognisable and that, where necessary, conforms to the designated colour schemes, logos and type styles. In public places and buildings, a hotchpotch of elements which don't meet a certain set of parameters can be confusing, and will probably look most unappealing. Common symbols which come outside the health and safety remit yet still need to be clearly identifiable can easily lose their meaning if the design is too eclectic, and vague instructions don't help people trying to find their way around new locations.
It is testimony to good design parameters that early wayfinding signs evolved into displays that continue to perform their intended function. That some of these have now erred on the side of complexity is a shame and totally unnecessary. We all have stories to tell about locations where directions and other visual instructions have both failed, whether this is a shopping centre, a countryside walk or an airport. Similarly, it's just as likely that we can recount sites where a perfectly well designed example has been badly installed and ends up being obscured by another obstacle, or is totally illegible because of an unwanted reflection or a bad viewing angle.
This is an industry sector where sign-making should still excel. Clearly produced displays using roll-fed or rigid materials, computer cut, often back-lit with the use of inlaid lettering, will score highly when compared with some ethereal digital print that might look very attractive but fails on the legibility stakes. Wayfinding signs also need to carry overall durability given that many are placed in locations where inclement weather and graffiti are both rife. They also need to be sufficiently stable to prevent idle hands from altering their direction.
For most people these days, the whole wayfinding experience has changed with the use of computers to search out initial directions, and satnav for finding destinations when driving or, even, walking. Trying to be all things to all men means that sign-makers working in this sector need to be aware that the way their displays are interpreted don't always come from the same origination point. There is often the danger of too much information overpowering the detail being outlined; applying the maxim that less can be more can lead to workable clarity rather than a mishmash of confusing instructions.
Wayfinding displays have also become an ideal candidate in some locations for touchscreen solutions, but these need to complement clear fixed signs. Identification and the viewer's ability to relate to information being provided on a panel must have a sensible follow-through to make the whole wayfinding experience straightforward.
A good wayfinding display is really a call to action. People rarely pay much attention to these signs until they need to go somewhere unfamiliar. The man in the street or the building won't be interested in how the signs have been designed, produced and installed. What's relevant are their effectiveness and how easy the instructions are to interpret, and this rides on clarity and simplicity.
Comments in chronological order (Total 1 comments)
04 April 2012 3:16AM
Here in the United States, I find that one of the biggest enemies to good wayfinding design can be the design community, which is so unfortunate. We have tried for some years now, for instance, to get a useful measurement for dark/light contrast, which is required by our disability standards, and are constantly shot down by the design lobby, because they love "white on white" or pale and shiny silver on pastel walls.
A few days ago I went with a group of people, including two individuals who are blind, to a new center for blind veterans, just built by the Veterans Administration. The director, who was blind, pointed out the completely useless braille and raised character room number signs, because the numbering was completely random! It was an impossible system for anyone to use, blind or sighted. The signs were pretty, however, with a pleasing "wave" design and a silver accent stripe.
Those who are interested in wayfinding might want to read the book by Paul Arthur, called "Wayfinding: People, Signs and Architecture." It was out of print, but has now been reprinted in a new edition. Check the Society of Environmental Graphic Design (SEGD) to see where it is available.