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Importance of Landmarks in Wayfinding

Highlighted in Kevin Lynch’s seminal book on urban planning The Image of the City, landmarks play an important role in helping us understand a place. Not only do they provide the datum points that help us build a mental map, we rely on them to find our way round. Therefore, an audit of the local context to identify potential landmarks should be a key input in the development of a wayfinding strategy.
Pool of London Wayfinding Sign Design

Role of Landmarks

Landmarks help to humanise and bring colour to navigation and orientation tasks. Ask anyone for directions and no doubt they will pepper their instructions with references to various features along the route.  Be it a pub, school, statue or supermarket, these landmarks are the stepping-stones on the journey that help bring the route to life. Functionally they are the visual cues that confirm we’re going the right way; alert us when we need to take action or act as beacons pulling us in a particular direction.

What Makes Good Landmark?

To be effective, ‘the thing’ needs to be large enough to been seen from a distance, be distinctive and unambiguous. Compare these attributes with those of more traditional wayfinding aids, such as road names or fingerposts. These visual references are usually limited to the size of the nameplate – visible only at close range.

Landmarks within buildings can come in a range of guises. They can be design features such as lifts, stairs, public art, as well as signs (particularly identity signs). The activity undertaken within a building will also generate its own landmark typology:

  • Shopping centres – the anchor tenants/major retailers;
  • Offices – the reception desk, canteen or facilities such as the post room;
  • Schools – the canteen, gym, head teacher’s office, library, playground.
Marble Arch building
Large letter T in a gothic style, applied above the entrance to The Trinity Leeds shopping centre. The sign is formed from a stainless-steel outline and filled with individual metal discs to give it sparkle. In front of the sign is a metal mesh sculpture of the goddess Minerva.

Examples of landmarks, ranging from historic monuments such as Marble Arch in London, through to public art and the high level identification sign over the entrance to Trinity Leeds shopping centre. 

Incorporating Landmarks Within a Wayfinding Strategy

Once identified, landmarks need to be accommodated within the design of the wayfinding scheme. An obvious approach is to include representative graphics on maps or within directional signs, ensuring that the design coincides with the view that people are likely to see en route.

Often a wayfinding designer will create or establish new landmarks as part of the implementation. This could be as simple as threading references to anchor tenants within the wayfinding information for a shopping centre. However, the design of the signs themselves, offers significant scope for creating additional landmarks. Landmarks, that if of sufficient scale and optimally located, will help generate awareness and act as a beacon.

Alternatively, it could involve introducing colour or graphics to create a feature wall. Not only will such differentiators help communicate the character of the brand and add to the overall aesthetic, they will have an important functional role in orientation and navigation.

So yes, landmarks are an important component of any wayfinding strategy. Not only does the consultant have to identify and consider how best to incorporate existing cues into the scheme; they also need to explore opportunities for introducing new landmarks to increase the legibility of the place.