When it comes to sustainable wayfinding design – material selection and dematerialisation strategies may be an obvious focus. However, the most important factors are undoubtably the underpinning strategy and design.
Whether you select natural, recycled or repurposed materials for your wayfinding signs, you will be importing materials into a place. These materials will need transporting from the site of origin, to a processor, on to the fabricator and finally to site for installation (with the consequent impact on carbon emissions). At the very least, processing and fabrication is likely to involve power and create waste that needs to be disposed of. At worst, it may use or even create harmful by-products and or have a negative impact on the local ecology and community.
Meeting the Sustainability Challenge
Whatever the design application, it’s critical that the materials we use have a clear purpose; deliver the intended functionality; add to the overall aesthetic and enjoyment; and can adapt to meet future needs.
If wayfinding information is difficult to understand or in the wrong place, its use will be limited. You may have used the most sustainable materials and processes available to manufacture the signs. But if the scheme fails to meet people’s information needs, it’s not only a waste of material, but has contributed carbon emissions with minimal value.
Similarly, if the design is at odds with wider aesthetic or doesn’t align with the brand, it will detract from the overall joy of an experience. In response to the inadequacies of the system, additional signs are likely to installed on an ad hoc basis. Or a totally new wayfinding system commissioned, to better meets the information and aesthetic needs.
The life-time of a well-considered wayfinding scheme could span many years. To last the course, the materials and any finishes will need to take account of the environmental conditions the signs will be exposed to. There is little point in specifying a material, however sustainably produced, if it is likely to reach its ‘use by date’ and need replacing before the information it communicates.
This panel and fingerpost sign were installed in the late 1990s as part of the wayfinding for St Katharine’s Dock and The Pool of London. Over 20 years later the panels and sign hardware were still in place guiding and informing visitors to this historic part of London.
It's all About the Planning & Design
So yes, wayfinding consultants and commissioners need to think about the materiality of the schemes they design and implement. But more importantly they need to ensure that the solution is fit for purpose and designed for the long term. Careful consideration should also be given to end of life, to ensure that products can be easily disassembled, and component materials reclaimed with minimal contamination.
That means developing a deep understanding of:
- Users and their information needs;
- People flows;
- Local facilities, features and attractors;
- Future developments;
- Brand and positioning;
- Wider design environment.
Then translating this analysis to determine:
- What information is needed and where;
- How frequently the information may need to be updated;
- How best to future-proof the scheme.
All this needs to happen before moving onto the design stage and ultimately the specification of materials and finishes for the signs.