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Lighting the Way: Five Trends in Wayfinding Design

By Scott Kirkwood

A few years ago, the term wayfinding generally referred to the physical signs and symbols that help us get from point A to point B—whether those two points are cities linked by an interstate highway, stores in a shopping mall, or wards of a hospital. With the advent of Waze and Google Maps, most of us are relying on smartphones to get where we’re going. Which means wayfinding is now one of the most tangible examples of digital and analog coming together to define a user experience. Read on to explore the trends shaping modern wayfinding—from supersized painted arrows to augmented reality.

1. SUPERSIZED WAYFINDING

Too often, wayfinding is presented as nothing more than a practical necessity—like an instruction manual that you read because you have no choice. What if, instead, wayfinding were embraced as a design element?

Design by dn&co. Photograph by Rory Gardiner.

Last year, the Society for Experiential Graphic Design (SEGD) honored two European projects that answered that question. London’s dn&co. designed HereEast, a sprawling campus for tech and creative professionals: visitors are greeted by oversize letters, numbers, and icons rendered in bright orange; directed by lines on the floor that mimic digital circuitry; and guided by towering totems straight out of a sci-fi flick.

Also honored was the German Centre for Neurodegenerative Diseases, designed by Stuttgart’s Büro Uebele Visuelle Kommunikation, which took inspiration from the plight of people with Alzheimer’s disease, who typically recall colors more easily than other signifiers: interiors are defined by 100-foot-long brushstrokes in calming shades of blue and green, which guide patients and researchers to each department.

Design by Büro Uebele Visuelle Kommunikation. Photographs by Brigida González (left) and Steffen Vogt (right). Copyright Büro Uebele Visuelle Kommunikation.

“There’s always been a clear idea that you can use wayfinding elements to strengthen the identity and sense of place within a given built environment—as long as the wayfinding works perfectly,” says Clive Roux, SEGD’s CEO. (Roux is quick to point out that European design standards don’t include the strict requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.) Sometimes the supersized theme is a mere practicality, as in the case of stadiums and arenas, where wayfinding elements must be gigantic just to be legible, given the these buildings’ size and the need to move thousands of people to and from their seats in minutes.

2. LANDMARK AS WAYFINDING ELEMENT

Another design trend that cleverly blurs the line between wayfinding and place-making is the use of public art as landmark, capitalizing on a concept that urban planner Kevin Lynch identified in his book Image of the City as early as 1960.

“Lynch has written about the psychology of how we navigate our environment by finding markers, borders, and paths to build a mental picture of where we are,” says Roux. “Public art is one way to do it, but you can also rely on well-known monuments like the Lincoln Memorial, buildings like the Guggenheim or the Empire State Building, or iconic signs like those in Las Vegas or Times Square—as long as they’re memorable, they’ll stand out as markers.”

Of course, no one erects a multimillion-dollar monument to help people get their bearings, but wayfinding designers can use those landmarks as reference points—and they can build reference points of their own. In an age when companies are trying to create more “Instagram moments,” wayfinding designers are working with architects to incorporate sculptural works into their designs.

The huge red 9 in front of the Solow office tower at 9 West 57th Street in New York City (by Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv) is a perfect example of wayfinding as landmark.

Jill Spaeth, partner at Spaeth Hill in Alexandria, Virginia, is working with a developer to do just that. “When a building owner has a large property that’s new, we’re often asking if we can create a feature that makes people say ‘I’ll meet you at the place with the big X, Y, or Z’” says Spaeth. One of Spaeth Hill’s clients is developing an older building but they can’t afford to overhaul the exterior with a modern glass facade. So they’ve challenged the architect and Spaeth Hill to create a bold, colorful sculpture that scales one side of the building, turning the entire building into a reference point. “Our customers understand that a building that’s different can get people saying, ‘We’re two doors down from the building with the giant sculpture.’ It can also become an Instagrammable moment that gets people talking about your business.”

Outdoor murals, whether permanent or temporary, such as this one created by Olivia King for Spotify X Bluesfest, can be key elements in a wayfinding system. 

3. GOING THE LAST MILE

Google Maps, Apple Maps, and Waze have revolutionized wayfinding in recent years. But as any lost pedestrian will tell you, the apps often struggle to measure individual footsteps, and they’re unreliable in sprawling indoor environments. New digital solutions are starting to tackle that “last mile” problem—generally in big structures like convention centers, hospitals, and shopping centers. Those are the kinds of environments that people are likely to visit more than once, increasing the odds that they’ll actually download an app and justifying the expense of software, electronic beacons, and other infrastructure.

22 Miles created an app for the Orange County Convention Center, which operates like Google Maps in miniature. Visitors can note where they parked their car, locate public transit, search for on-site events, and locate ATMs and restrooms using the app or touch-screen kiosks. The Chicago Institute of Art’s app contains an interactive map that identifies a visitor’s location by triangulating from the museum’s wifi access points; users can search for specific works of art and access short audio clips to learn more about each piece. (Learn more in the Sign Research Foundation’s report, Digital Wayfinding Trends.)

Developers are creating apps that help you find your way through large public buildings—such as this one, developed by 22 Miles for the Orange County Convention Center (screen shot from the Apple App store). 

The same technology is being harnessed to help people with visual impairments. Last year, The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts began employing Indoor Explorer technology, created by Louisville’s American Printing House for the Blind, using beacons installed on site and data from Open Street Map. As the tech converges and a digital standard emerges, tools for peole with visual impairments may be able to piggyback on wayfinding tools designed for the general population.

4. MAKING AUGMENTED REALITY A REALITY?

Tech gurus have been touting the potential of augmented reality for years, but beyond a short-lived obsession with Pokemon Go, AR hasn’t necessarily lived up to the hype. Mixed results in recent years suggest it may be a while before the technology is on every smartphone, but it is clearly becoming part of the wayfinding landscape.

In February, Google made its new AR map app available to local guides for beta testing—so all those tiny blue circles will soon become huge three-dimensional arrows (which may not improve things much). Experience suggests it’s easier to keep your eyes on where you’re going and listen to directions rather than staring at a screen as you navigate an unfamiliar landscape filled with even more people looking at screens. But Amsterdam’s Studio Five has mocked up a clever concept app for Legoland Denmark that’s sure to appeal to little Lego lovers everywhere: Users would be able to follow a 3D Lego character who guides them to shortest lines and, presumably, makes it more fun to step to the back of those lines.

In 2017, the Detroit Institute of Arts unveiled an AR app called Lumin, the first museum tour to employ Google’s Tango platform. Although the application might be described as 10 percent wayfinding and 90 percent multimedia educational tool, it’s a foot in the door, so to speak, in a place where wayfinding elements are crucial to the visitor experience.

5. DIGITAL, MEET ANALOG

For all the digital advances, wayfinding is one design discipline that will always include some analog elements. Years ago, transit systems like Washington’s Metro introduced simple digital signs on subway platforms so users could see when the next train is scheduled to arrive. Eventually, the transit agency recognized the value of placing those signs outside the stations, so users can turn that knowledge into action—a development made even more valuable now that travelers can choose between Lyft, Uber, and dockless scooters and bikes. As Digital Wayfinding Trends notes, New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) recently added next-stop signs on select buses—now, passengers can see transfer options along the way, paired with predicted arrival times.

For years, digital signs attached to highway overpasses have identified recent accidents and encouraged drivers to slow down, but portable signs in D.C. now advise drivers of heavy traffic before they hit the on-ramp, in time to seek out other options. Sure, much of this information is already contained in smartphone apps, but by presenting data to travelers at the moment they most need it, wayfinding tools are not just pointing people in the right direction—they’re helping us make smarter decisions, so we can get where we’re going even faster.