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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3 Responses to Exploring the Differences in Airport Wayfinding Systems by Tom Barden

  1. wayfindinguk says:

    Thanks Tom for submitting this article for inclusion in my blog. I think there are so many factors that effect how useful or well designed signage systems are in airports (many of which you could not fit into a small article).

    I believe the difficult task that airports face regarding signage is down to the size of the airport and how rapidly it expands or changes. If the signage was done at a time when the airport was a lot smaller and had different needs then it is often the case that signage keeps being added but quite often less thought is given to the bigger picture and wether the old system is still appropriate. There is also the problem in large airports that different terminals may have different teams in charge of them and different airlines flying from them. When it comes to creating an airport wide system there are lots of teams, as well as stakeholders (airlines etc) who have an input into the process. I am not surprised that Heathrow staff are still asked questions by passengers on a regular basis, in such a complex environment there will always be people who need that extra bit of help.

    If an airport is small and well laid out, it will not only be easier from the outset to create a wayfinding system that works, but if there is little expansion it will also be easier to maintain a consistent approach and to manage stakeholders during the process.

    I think all of todays leading airports have realised the importance of wayfinding and are working hard to improve their systems, however orchestrating a well designed, well coordinated, simple and legible system is easier said than done.

  2. Pingback: Getting About « Tom Barden

  3. The problem with an international standard is that we don’t have an organisation to manage and maintain it. The work done by the AIGA is probably the nearest thing to a global standard but the symbol set is limited, and so would struggle to cover the multitude of services found around the world.

    Perhaps a bigger problem is the cultural differences that these icons would need to adapt to, for example the ‘Information’ icon in the AIGA set is a question mark (?) yet in most of Europe the prefered icon in a lowercase ‘i’. This is obviously a fairly stark difference, there are probably many more with a even subtler differences that any system would need to be sensitive to.

    I do agree with your throughts about the Heathrow icon layout though, what were they thinking?

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