Reading the city: wayfinding is about more than getting from A to B

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Bristol: legible city. Image: Chris Bahn

Wayfinding has been variously described as:

  • spatial problem-solving
  • systems that assist people to find their way from one place to another
  • a way of helping people engage seamlessly in a built environment

An effective wayfinding system consists of signs, maps and other visual clues to help guide people to their destinations. But as well as providing directions, good wayfinding systems can also promote health and wellbeing, tourism and economic development.

Way back wayfinding

The first recorded use of the term ‘wayfinding’ was by urban planner Kevin Lynch in his 1960 book ‘The Image of a City’. But wayfinding has been around as long as people have been on the move. In the ancient world, people learned to navigate by reading signs in nature, such as the sun and ocean currents. When the Romans built thousands of miles of roads, they also created stone markers to show destinations and distances. Later, the development of the motor car required street signs and road markings. More recently, wayfinding designers have been applying their skills for pedestrians and cyclists in cities, and in places with complex navigational challenges, such as airports and hospitals.

The benefits of wayfinding

Effective wayfinding systems have environmental social and economic benefits. Signage can inform pedestrians and cyclists about the availability of safe routes, and convey information about distance. Wayfinding signs can also act as visual prompts to encourage people to walk or use more sustainable forms of transport. And wayfinding signage may persuade people to explore urban areas, visit attractions and make use of local services such as shops and cinemas.

Uncovering the legible city

Beyond their directional functions, wayfinding systems can be used for creating a sense of place and showcasing an area’s unique history. In recent years, urban planners, designers and architects have been working with communities to develop Kevin Lynch’s idea of ‘the legible city’.

Bristol led the way with a network of direction signs, on-street information panels, printed walking maps and public arts projects. The project created a consistent visual identity, countering impressions of Bristol as a collection of fragmented, undefined and unmemorable places.

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Bristol: legible city. Image: Chris Bahn

Bristol’s Legible City project is now entering a new phase, including a major upgrade of on-street map units to incorporate high-quality illuminated mapping, and the integration of communication equipment into the map units to provide visitors and residents with useful data about the city’s streets and spaces.

Journey narratives

Bristol’s pioneering approach has been adopted by other cities, including London, Glasgow, Manchester, Moscow and New York, as well as smaller cities such as Inverness. Some have used wayfinding as part of a wider strategy. Vancouver, for example, is fostering a walking culture, and so its wayfinding system is geared towards ensuring people make smart transportation choices. Meanwhile, in Moscow, a wayfinding system for the city’s metro stations is part of its efforts to create a world-class transportation system.

London’s Legible City project set out not only to provide directions, but to engage with pedestrians by using storytelling as part of the design process. The project team studied how people interact with their environment, and considered their different cultural backgrounds and the kinds of information they need for navigation. The designers also identified distinct environmental and architectural features to create a wayfinding system that was unique to London, and that created ‘journey narratives’ for different types of user, from ‘strollers’ to ‘striders’.

Selective wayfinding

While wayfinding systems are gaining ground, there are some concerns about who runs them and who they are aimed at. As writer and urban historian Leo Hollis explained to The Guardian:

“If the legible city only maps shopping malls, car parks and the police station, this seriously reduces what the city has to offer. This can make parts of the city invisible to the visitor. Someone somewhere has made an arbitrary decision that tourists don’t want to go there, or that place is too dangerous so it should be avoided.”

It’s important that communities – and particular groups within the community –are considered in the process of developing wayfinding systems. In areas with an ageing population, for example, urban planners need to bear in mind the particular needs of older people when designing wayfinding systems.

Wayfinding to Playfinding

Having made its presence felt on city streets, wayfinding has also moved into airports, hospitals, schools and shopping malls. The Dongdaemun Design Plaza in the South Korean capital of Seoul, has 37 shopping malls and 35,000 shops. The wayfinding system for this complex space involves a high level of digital and smart media, with distinctive pathways for shoppers, tourists, design professionals and leisure groups.

Some designers have found inventive solutions to help people navigate interior spaces. At Tokyo’s Narita Airport, for example, the main concourses were redesigned to mimic a running track, the lanes printed with wayfinding symbols directing passengers to departure gates. The idea, celebrating the forthcoming Olympic Games, takes wayfinding into the realm of what is known as ‘playfinding’, where information and directions converge with fun and memorable experiences.

Wayfinding into the future

Increasingly, mobile applications, digital displays and other wireless technologies are being integrated into the ‘furniture’ of wayfinding systems. In some, mobile apps use QR (quick response) codes on street signs to provide more detailed historical information.

But with so many of us now using maps on smartphones to navigate cities, some are questioning the value of physical signage systems. And as Google moves into mapping the interiors of museums and other public buildings, the shift towards technology seems irresistible.

Even so, proponents of wayfinding argue that focusing on an app can rob pedestrians of the full sensory experience of walking – the sights and sounds, colours and smells of a neighbourhood, the texture of the surfaces, and how the surroundings make them feel.

So, although navigation from one location to another has never been easier, it’s worth remembering that there’s more to wayfinding than simply finding your way.


Further blog posts on urban living include: