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It's a Value Adding Discipline - Not Obscure Business Speak for Signs

I’ve never previously responded to a piece in a newspaper, but an article published this week, by an FT journalist no less, is a great example of how far wayfinding has come as a recognised discipline. But equally how far it’s got to go. The subject was business language. In particular the use of obscure or confusing words in place of simpler, common place alternatives. Something that we can all sympathise with.

The spur for the article was the word ‘wayfinding’.  It had come up in a discussion the journalist had with a colleague, about difficulties experienced in navigating the new Financial Times offices. I’ll leave you to read a copy of the article, but the sentiment was that the word wayfinding should be confined to architects’ websites and is simply a highfalutin substitute for signs.

Wayfinding – The Discipline

On the one hand it is good to see wayfinding used in common parlance and in the right context. But the journalist’s response, suggests there is a still a huge amount of misunderstanding. So, to put the record straight, wayfinding is a recognised, albeit niche design discipline. There is a raft of specialist wayfinding consultancies whose business it is to design solutions to increase legibility and help people find their way round buildings, towns and cities.

In fact, the UK is home to internationally recognised consultancies that ply their trade across the world. To name but a few: City-Id, merited with setting the standard for city wayfinding and responsible for schemes in New York and Moscow; Applied Wayfinding, the company behind the acclaimed Legible London wayfinding, who’ve similarly worked on projects in New York, Madrid, Rio de Janiero and Seoul; Air Design, whose work can be seen across Europe in Spain, Belgium, Poland & Russia; and Maynard Design – New Zealand and Australia. Even my own studio The Velvet Principle has delivered projects in the Middle East and Balkans.

The positive contribution to the balance of payments notwithstanding, the demand for UK based expertise to work on commissions in some of the worlds most sophisticated cities is something worth celebrating.

Which brings me to the second point – wayfinding being a glorified word for signs. To equate wayfinding with signs is somewhat reductive for a discipline that combines analysis and strategy, with human factors and multidisciplinary design skills. Signs are just one manifestation of wayfinding and often the tool of last resort. The aim of a bone fide wayfinding consultant is to reduce the need for signs. Through the use of more intuitive navigation aids – the architectural design, lighting, public art, digital, people.

Economic Importance

Finally, down to the issue of getting lost. Besides the inconvenience and stress to the individual, there is the much bigger economic impact. A study within the Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, estimated that wayfinding problems were costing them $200,000 a year.  Closer to home, I’ve heard reference to a UK government department calculating a £11m loss in productivity from difficulties in finding meeting rooms.

So to those getting lost at The Financial Times, for a minuscule fraction of that loss in productivity, we’d be happy to work with you to improve the legibility of your building…just call…anytime…