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Wayfinding – What’s that all About?

We routinely use a range of tools to help with navigation and orientation. These range from landmarks to information that has been specifically designed to assist.

What is Wayfinding?

.....and What the Heck Does a Wayfinding Consultant Do?

Fundamentally, wayfinding is what we do when we move or navigate, from one place to another. However, at the Velvet Principle, we take a slightly more expansive view. One that covers the tone and feel of a place inferred by the design of the environment and elements within it. 

What wayfinding isn’t – is a highfalutin word for signs. In fact, wayfinding is a strategic and planning activity that involves using a range of mechanisms and tools, with signs often the tool of last resort.

Key Wayfinding Components

There are three fundamental things people need to complete a successful wayfinding task:

  1. We need to know our current location.
  2. Where we want to get to.
  3. Tools to help us plan and execute a route.

Wayfinding Processes and Tools

The mechanisms or tools we use to navigate can be broken into three broad categories too:

  • Cognitive
  • Wayfinding cues and interventions
  • Information resources

Cognitive

Every time we find our way to a new place, we build a mental map of the journey. The more times we follow that route, the more it will be cemented in our brains – to a point when we can do it on autopilot.

We can apply this learning to similar environments. For example, once you’ve shopped in several supermarkets you get a pretty good understanding of the general layouts, that will help you find your way round pretty much any supermarket.

Wayfinding Cues

There are several clues we use to navigate from place to place. Some will be intuitive or learned; others will be deliberately provided to assist with wayfinding:

Landscape and Architectural features – we know that a staircase or elevator will take us to another floor; a feature doorway or open door is probably the entrance to a building. Similarly, we are conditioned to follow defined paths rather make our way across open ground.

Lighting – we are drawn to entrances and routes that are illuminated and (particularly at night) will avoid dark or poorly lit spaces.

Landmarks – these can be anything from geographical features to buildings and public art. These provide reference points when planning a journey or asking for directions. If visible from a distance e.g., a church spire they act as beacons drawing us to a destination.

Signs – such as building identification signs, mapping totems and directional fingerposts are pieces of information that have been introduced specifically to help with navigation.  A considered, well-executed scheme will also have a marketing function – communicating the brand and encouraging people to explore.

Residents Entrance sign design
View through the lift lobby in the offices at 20 Fenchurch st, with directional signs on the wall at the entrance

Lighting and architectural features all have a role to play in wayfinding. An open door and well illuminated routes, provide a subconscious welcome that encourages people to proceed.

Information Resources

These come in all shapes and sizes and include things we consult to plan or help execute a route:

  • Maps – printed, web based or apps
  • Asking people for directions
  • Information/content provided on wayfinding signs

The Role of a Wayfinding Consultant

A wayfinding consultant will analyse a place – exploring routes and plans; examining sight lines; identifying existing cues and decision points. This analysis will highlight where interventions are needed and for what purpose. It’s then a question of selecting the best tool for communicating the information – whether it’s explicit guidance or more intuitive. This will involve working with the the wider design team (e.g architects, lighting designers etc) to create an integrated, holistic approach. With the wayfinding consultant typically taking responsibility for the design of any sign and graphic elements.

The aim of any wayfinding project should be to provide guidance when and where it’s needed, but  merge into the background when not required.