Wayfinding and Perceptions

I often use twitter to keep up to date on what’s going on in the wayfinding world. It’s great for keeping up with what is being installed where, who is working on different projects and what research and development is being undertaken. The interesting thing for me is that there is no filter. You get to see the good, the bag and the ugly, but more intriguingly to me is other peoples responses to wayfinding systems and the insight it gives you in to how wayfinding designers, clients, the public and other types of designers view wayfinding and how they judge and percieve its success.

I have noticed a difference on twitter in how wayfinding designers judge work in comparison to how the public view it. Prime examples of this are tweets from proud clients promoting recently installed schemes asking what others think. In one instance where a photograph was attached my first thought was quite negative. The surprising thing was that subsequently a member of the public tweeted with positive feedback. This got me thinking about all the different types of systems out there and for the purposes of this article simplified them down in to four categories:

  • It works and looks great (the holy grail). Generally everyone is quite positive.
  • It kind of works, but doesn’t look great (it’ll do the trick). Usually divides opinion.
  • It looks great, but it doesn’t work (what’s the point). Usually divides opinion.
  • It looks bad and doesn’t work (epic fail). Generally everyone is quite negative.

So we know what the holy grail is. When designing a wayfinding system there are lots of design elements that can effect the overall usability and functionality of the sign. Information designers carefully consider colours, typefaces, pictograms and layout whilst wayfinding planners look at hierarchies, placement and information requirements. At the end of the process you should get a legible, functional and beautiful system that designers and users love. At the other end of the spectrum there are poorly designed and executed systems which everyone can agree are terrible in all aspects. As for the other two categories how can people view the same wayfinding system so differently?

Wayfinding designers know what a good system looks like and know how much effort goes into great design. We constantly judge every bit of information design on both a functional and aesthetic level. Users of the system are coming from a different perspective. First and foremost does it appear to work? If they used it successfully to navigate an area it’s done its job. If there was no information before and suddenly there is a new sign or map that’s an improvement to them, but there is a fine line between something working adequately and it working efficiently. In the absence of understanding great design or having experience of using or interacting with great design the public and clients misinterpret wayfinding schemes as being a success when in reality they are adequate at best.

This lack of understanding about wayfinding was exemplified in another tweet about signage in an American airport asking why the terminolgy ‘Toilets’ was used instead of ‘Restrooms’. As someone who plans signage schemes I suspect that the designer of the system considered the types of passengers that use an airport that serves both domestic and international destinations and came to the conclusion that the term ‘Toilets’ was more internationally recognisable. It’s understandable that the the public don’t have knowledge of the complexities of wayfinding and good design and it’s okay that they simply know if it works for them or of it doesn’t work. They don’t need to know exactly why. Feedback both positive and negative from people using wayfinding systems is invaluable to designers, but then there is the third category and this usually comes from a lack of understanding from a designer.

Graphic designers may know how to make something look good, but this does not necessarily mean that they understand design for information. Similarly architects are great at designing buildings and understanding spaces, but that doesn’t mean that they understand what people need to navigate a space. There are many wayfinding systems out there that look great. They may be elegant and beautifully crafted or bold and eye catching, but a good looking wayfinding system does not automatically equate to a functional wayfinding system. Again it is systems like these that divide opinion. The general opinion from designers in other professions is that they are great systems. These kind of schemes usually get high traffic on twitter, even the public start commenting on them, but there is always part of me that is suspicious of these popular schemes. I really want them to be successful and be one of the rare systems that look good and actually work, but often they have been designed by graphic designers or architects that haven’t fully grasped that at the root of wayfinding is functionality and the needs of the people using it.

The scale and complexiety of a wayfinding project can also have a direct effect on how people perceive it. On a small and simple project the inadequacies of a wayfinding system may go relatively unnoticed, but when you scale this up and add complex operations like at a rail station even the smallest design floors become magnified. Pair small budgets with a lack of client understanding about the wayfinding process and you start to see signs popping up that might help navigate an area to a certain extent, but are by no means considered great or even good design by professionals.

Relatively speaking wayfinding is still quite a new concept. In the decade I have been working in design I have definitely noticed people taking a bigger interest in wayfinding and clients are becoming more aware of the importance of good wayfinding systems. The struggle we face as wayfinding designers is that being interested in wayfinding and understanding it are two different things. I don’t think we should expect everyone to understand it. It is after all our job and the reason we get paid for our expertise. I think we need to accept that like all professions there is good and bad out there and that other peoples perceptions may be different from our own. It’s our job to keep fighting the corner for good wayfinding design and to convince clients to trust us and demonstrate that paying a little more for the right expertise is the only way to achieve the holy grail!

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SDS Awards 2013

SDS Awards 2013
This is the fifth international Awards competition to be organised by the Society and, as ever, its purpose is to recognise excellence in signing, systems and wayfinding, wherever in the world it may be happening, in whatever form and irrespective of size and scale. It seeks to give prominence to companies and individuals and those studying in the areas of interest to the Society, who are proving their competence and originality.


Who can enter?
Although the Society is London based, entry to the competition is by no means confined to those based in the UK. Previous submissions have come from many corners of the globe, highlighting an immense diversity of projects and ideas – from wood carvings in Peru, through cycle path signing in Australia, Government buildings in Austria to digital sign systems for the Japanese rail network. 
But we still look forward to an entry from Africa!

The Award categories
The classifications are wide ranging to embrace the increasing scope of the profession and the technical and cerebral breadth of information design and wayfinding design. This year there are eight categories covering several areas which are new to the Awards:

  • Wayfinding in Public Spaces
  • Information Design for Navigation
  • Commercial Signing Applications and Identity
  • Product Innovation and Technology
  • Digital Wayfinding Solutions
  • Multiple Language and Multi-script Signing
  • Human Factors for Navigation/li>
  • Student Work

In addition, a Grand Prix award will be given to the best entry received overall.

The competition is open for four months. Entries will be accepted until 23.59 GMT on Friday 20th September 2013.

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SDSAwards2013_A3_Student_poster

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Sign Spotting 003

Olympic Fever
On a recent walk from Clerkenwell to Kings Cross I came across a number of Olympic themed graphics ranging from banners to floor graphics. They seem to be everywhere I look at the moment. If anyone has pictures of their own feel free to post them here!

2012 Olympic Pictogram
2012 Olympic Pictogram
2012 Olympic Facts
Olympic fever in Camden

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Wayfinding in retail – an exploration

Wayfinding in Retail
Looking for a challenge I thought 2012 could be the year where I expand my brain a little and explore an area of wayfinding I have little working knowledge of. I have worked as a Wayfinding consultant for almost 5 years now and I’ve worked in areas including airports, rail stations, urban environments and hospitals, but the closest I have ever got to retail is a project in a large shopping centre.

When I hit the large department stores on Oxford Street or pop to my local supermarket, I often wonder who devised the Wayfinding system (especially if I’m totally lost) and most importantly who keeps the system up to date, monitors it’s success and ensures it is doing it’s job? I also wonder how advanced the area of wayfinding is within the retail sector compared to areas like healthcare or aviation? For example:

  • When did the retail sector begin to realise the importance of wayfinding?
  • What do retailers hope to achieve with instore signage and graphics?
  • What is best practice, is there an industry standard?
  • Who are the leaders in the field?
  • How much academic research has been done on the subject?
  • Are there any official statistics on how a good signage system can effect sales?

Many stores commission designers to create beautiful new systems, but once the designers have left the building, who is left to ensure the well thought out designs adapt and grow appropriately as the store evolves? How much effort is put into the strategy behind the system and its upkeep in comparison the the physical appearance?

Selfridges Signagedesign of the year . graphicSelfridges Signage
Selfridges London designed by Cartlidge Levene

GTF for M&SM&S Signage
M&S cardboard signage by Grafic Thought Facility and yellow vertical circulation at M&S

Sainsbury's WGCSainsbury's WGCSainsbury’s at Welwyn Garden City has a complete refresh of its instore brand look and feel by Twelve Studio

Do all department stores, large supermarkets and flagship stores have a signage manager or a team of people looking after wayfinding? If so what background do these people typically have? Are they designers, store planners, interior designers, visual merchandisers or faciltity/estate managers?

In many environments wayfinding is about getting from A to B as quickly and as efficiently as possible, but with retail there seems to be an element of wanting customers to explore or stumble across things they were not looking for and sending them on strategic routes encouraging them to stray off their original path without feeling lost. In some stores like Ikea the tactic is for you to spend as much town wandering around as you can!

Alan Penn from Space Syntax looks at the shopping experience at Ikea

My own assumption of what retail signage aims to achieve is:

  • to direct customers to right area or floor
  • to provide information about products/services
  • to enable customers to browse the store with confidence
  • to encourage people to buy from the store
  • to encourage people to visit again (by creating a good is user experience)
  • to help communicate the brand and create a strong visual identity.

I also believe that much of the above could be achieved through good store planning, interior design and visual merchandising, rather than just signage and directories. This again leads me to the question of who takes responsibility for it?

So my first task in attempting to learn a little more about the retail sector will be to confirm wether my assumptions on the role of wayfinding are actually correct. Secondly I want to find out how much retail has acknowledged the value good wayfinding brings to the business and how those who have embraced it have achieved their goals through excellence in wayfinding. Finally armed with all this new found knowledge I want to form opinions on what is currently out there and explore wether there might be room for improvement? Watch this space…

If anybody has any useful links, examples of information on existing research, works in this sector or has their own opinion on the subject please feel free to post a comment or contact me directly.

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Sign Spotting 002

Point the finger
On a trip back home this Easter I came across these interesting graphic devices near the new Kings Cross Station entrance. They were everywhere from the floor to large banners. @karmatsky also tweeted a photograph on the day of the opening showing staff wearing giant novelty hands!


This way please!

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Musing 007

Ways of seeing
Moving on from my previous musing I started to read John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. He believes that what we see is processed based on what we already know and that perception can be manipulated by external factors. His television series on this subject can be found here.


Ways of seeing: How does the eye work with the brain to interpret what we see?

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Sign Spotting 001

I predict…a sign!
On a recent trip to Cambridge I came across a rather amusing sign, but some of the people I was was couldn’t see anything wrong at first. See how long it takes you to spot the blunder!

Cambridge Parking Sign
If only we could see into the future…? (Image courtesy of Google Streetview)

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Exploring the Differences in Airport Wayfinding Systems by Tom Barden


Author Bio
Tom graduated in 2011 reciving a 2:1 in graphic design from Havering College. He is a keen amateur photographer and enjoys the thoughts and processes behind designing information and wayfinding systems. This article is just a taster of his research, further information on his study can be found on his website http://visuallyinteresting.co.uk.


I chose to publish Tom’s article not just because I have a personal interest in the topic, but I also felt his conclusion would spark some debate from the wayfinding and aviation community, especially on the topic of usability of signage already out there and the reasons behind their design. So wether you agree, disagree or even helped designed the signage in this article please feel free to let Tom know your thoughts.


Exploring the Differences in Airport Wayfinding Systems
An article by guest writer Tom Barden.

Airports are some of the busiest places on the planet, with hundreds of thousands of people passing through them every day, it is therefore essential to provide the best navigational systems to ease people through these stressful environments in the quickest and calmest way possible. This study looks towards airports to understand how wayfinding has evolved over the last 5 decades, and continues to evolve, to provide the clearest navigational solutions.

In 1967 interior architect Kho Liang Le and graphic designer Benno Wissing were commissioned to design a system at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport which would greatly aid the navigation around the airport. According to Paul Mijksenaar in his book Wayfinding at Schiphol, both Wissing and Le “laid the foundation for [one of the world’s first] information systems”.

This system was so effective that it stayed active from 1967 through to 1990, consistently scoring high on user satisfaction ratings. In 1990 Mijksenaar Design Agency was asked to conduct a two year study of the wayfinding system and locate any areas that may need improving. Following the company slogan of ‘preserving what is good and improving what is weak’ one of the changes that came from the study was adjusting the lettering from all lower case to title case, this change was aided by an increased understanding of how we read words or sentences.

After the 1996 Dusseldorf airport disaster in which many people lost their lives a number of airports recognised the need for much clearer fire exit signs. As a result of this Mijksenaar changed the amenities colour from green to grey so the fire exit signs had little visual competition.

With more people passing through its five terminals each year than any other, BAA Heathrow is the world’s leading international Airport. It is therefore essential that it supplies an easy to understand and clear navigational system, however, after conducting some on site research it appears this has not yet been fully achieved. A staff member mentioned to me in conversation “people are always asking for directions despite the signs around them.”

Through my own research and visits to Heathrow it is clear that, although BAA has made steps towards standardising the signage within the airport, it has not fully succeeded. Some signs differ in colour (from yellow to orange) and others use serif typefaces while the majority are sans-serif. One particular observation I have made about Heathrow’s signage is that the symbols and type do not work together as one unit. The black strip that surrounds the icons splits the sign into three sections; firstly the type, secondly the icons and thirdly the directional arrows. For a wayfinding system to work successfully all elements must complement one another, rather than competing for visual dominance.

Heathrow Sign
Heathrow Airport Sign, London

To investigate how wayfinding systems differ over a worldwide basis we must investigate a smaller airport. A perfect example would be Slovenia’s Ljubljana Jože Pučnik, which handles around 1.5 million annual passengers. In comparison BAA Heathrow serves an average of 67 milllion annual passengers and Schiphol handled 47 million in 2008.

Ljubljana Jože Pučnik makes use of a standardised library of airport symbols designed by AIGA and the typography adopted is VAG Rounded. The system in place is quite successful; the clear contrast between the black and white avoids any colour clash with safety signs, while the large symbols and arrows are clear to see and on the most part recognisable. The text itself follows the rounded borders of the icons providing a considered wayfinding system that, unlike Heathrow airport does not have elements competing against one another.

Slovenian Airport Sign
Slovenian Airport Sign

If we compare the three airports studied it could be possible to conclude that wayfinding evolves in areas that need to compete to greater heights to survive. Schiphol airport, although attracting 47 million people in 2008 gets most of that number from transfer flights, it is therefore essential that it tries to provide the clearest navigational systems to the international public. Heathrow is London’s main international airport, and has the potential to provide a modern and effective wayfinding system for public spaces. However, the signage does not appear to be as polished as Schiphol airport. This may be due to the increased local competition faced by Schiphol which, in order to continue to attract a high amount of business, needs to provide a clear navigational system. Finally, due to the size of Slovenia’s Ljubljana Jože Pučnik it is unlikely to have the capital available to produce its own unique set of symbols therefore relying on an international standard. It has, however, provided a clear navigational system that can only help the flow of passengers through the airport, and in today’s world of inexpensive international travel and merging languages is an international standard of airport wayfinding systems such a bad thing?

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Want to write a guest article…?

Calling all students!
Written or researching an essay on wayfinding and information design or just want your say on a particular topic you’re passionate about?

I’m looking to publish an article from a guest writer next month and I’m calling on the student community in the hope of finding some fresh views and new perspectives. The topic can be anything from hieroglyphics to augmented reality and all that lies between.

All you have to do is send me an email with the subject ‘Guest Article’, attach your article (approx 500 words), a short bio and any links to accompanying images to wayfindinguk@googlemail.com before Sunday 6th November.

Any questions feel free to get in touch.

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Pictograms, International Communication and Cultural Diversity (Lance Wyman Case Study – continued)

Case Study – The Work of Lance Wyman continued…
The 1970 World Cup was also held in Mexico. Design principles that were adopted for the 68 Olympics were applied to the World Cup. Not only was the same typography used, but a similar system was applied to seat finding on the tickets. Wyman could have designed something totally new, but he knew that the existing system worked, and using it again would not make the design any less of a success. By tweaking his designs he created a system of symbols that were recognizable, worked well and were as easy as ever to use.

Mexico 70 ticket PictogramsMexico 70 ticket PictogramsMexico 70 ticket Pictograms
Mexico 70 football tickets.

Wyman’s symbol project for the Mexican metro is the first example of pictograms in such a daily public facility as the subway. Yukio Ota explains in his book on Pictogram Design it was very significant that they were not designed by law as in the case of road signs. They were not restricted to a given period such as a world exposition and were provided for use by everyone. Unlike the Olympic designs, these symbols were going to be in use for a significant period of time. Wyman wrote that the signs he designed were effective even in the case of illiterate people or foreign tourists. The main reason that the system was so effective was that pictograms were used to represent each station.

“The icons are designed to represent an important aspect of the sta- tion neighbourhood, a reference to history, an important landmark or an activity in the station area. The icons are wayfinding helpers on station signs and system maps.”

Mexico Subway Icons
Mexico City subway icons

Like his previous designs, Wyman used Mexican history and culture to inspire and inform his designs. In this example, it was crucial that the pictograms accurately depicted the connection with the individual stations. Wyman took advantage of the culture and used reference points to represent stations and their neighboring area. These pictograms demonstrate how surroundings and context can greatly affect the design and meanings of the symbols. Wyman suggests that if you can describe a pictogram it will work. All off the station symbols do this and these descriptions link to the station and its immediate environment. The duck itself cannot single handedly represent the station, but in the right context it communicates clearly and efficiently. The way in which Wyman used the history, culture and surroundings to create the pictograms has not only given the signs a lease of life, but has greatly aided communication.

“Wayfinding offers the designer an opportunity to reference the history, culture, and essence of place in an immediate way that will be seen and used on a daily basis. An effective wayfinding system can be a visual ambassador…”

Wyman’s work for Mexico did exactly that. The pictograms he designed throughout the 1960’s and 70’s not only created great international communication devices, but told a story about Mexico. Using pictures alone, a piece of history was depicted and element of Mexican culture was revealed. The pictograms not only represented the object/facility, but embodied what Mexico was about. Wyman’s pictograms ultimately showed that pictograms can have personality or display cultural characteristics and communicate across language barriers.

Coming soon…the conclusion to the Pictograms, International Communication and Cultural Diversity series!

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