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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