When you visit a new airport, hospital, or train station – how do you know where to go? How do you know where to find customs, the emergency room, arrival and departure schedules, or visitor parking? The easy answer is ‘signs’ of course. But there’s a lot more to ‘placing signs’ and moving people than you might imagine.
More formally, the art and science of directing people in motion in major facilities is called ‘wayfinding,’ which falls under the category of environmental design.
Most people never think about what goes into planning the signage in places like airports or bus stations. People mainly only consider signage when it’s not done well and they can’t find what they’re looking for.
But according to award-winning designer Howard York, who specializes in wayfinding and corporate branding, a good wayfinding campaign can take many months to carry out. Designers involved in wayfinding are typically working alongside architects and must take into consideration not only messaging, but safety, security, engineering, branding, and accessibility.
York, who teaches within Full Sail’s Media Design MFA program, has headed up wayfinding and physical corporate branding campaigns for a number of high-profile facilities, including the King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, more than 7,000 Taco Bell stores, Exxon and Esso gas stations worldwide, and Nashville’s Music City Central bus terminal.
According to York, there is a lot of research involved in wayfinding. There’s general research that involves how people see things – for instance, how the color and size of a sign and available light affects visibility. Wayfinding projects also depend on project-specific research. For York’s work on the Music City Central bus terminal, the team was able to use data collected by the Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority relating to passenger bus usage, peak hours, and off-hours at the original bus terminal.
Based on the traffic data and the floor plans for the new facility, the Nashville team developed user patterns. These were in the form of blueprints, but they could also be computer simulations. “The client signs off on these, and they basically [indicate], ‘These are where the people are going to go,’” says York. “You have to design for worse-case. You don’t design for off-hours, you design for peak hours. So that’s step one.”
Wayfinding diagrams of the King Khalid International Airport in Saudia Arabia.
Step two involves designing the signs. “There are three types of signs: information, identification, and direction. All signage falls under those three categories,” says York. “Information tells you where a destination is, identification basically identifies that destination – restaurant, men’s room, information booth. And then you have directional signs, which basically get you to and from those destinations. Based on the user diagrams, we determined that there were about 25 different types of signs that we needed, falling under the information, identification, and direction categories.”
For the Music City Central bus terminal, York had to create a number of signs and markers to make the main bus throughway safer.
“What happens is that the buses come in and go right across where people are crossing,” says York. “This is a two-way. The problem here is you’re going to look left here to see that there’s a bus coming, and as you’re crossing the crosswalk, you’re going to think it’s clear, and the bus [could] hit you from the right.”
To solve this problem, York and his team designed hanging stop signs at each crosswalk for the buses. They also made sure that people could only cross at the crosswalks by adding physical barriers (including tactile sidewalk strips for the blind) and placing multiple ‘No Pedestrian’ signs in the areas outside of the crosswalks.
Because he was designing for the “Music City,” York included music symbols in part of the wayfinding design. Rather than being labeled by number, “Every single floor in the parking garage was a different musical instrument,” says York.
Once all the signs were designed and categorized (including size, color, material, message, location, and lighting), the complete design package was then submitted to a sign fabricator, who actually made and installed all the signs.
York says that wayfinding is present in some form in every facility, although in some, it’s more of an afterthought. “It really works well when it’s brought in early, and it’s part of the whole design process,” says York.
Although wayfinding involves a technical mindset and an understanding of architecture and design, it could be a good fit for someone with a background in animation and simulation, says York.
York says wayfinding and signage is a rewarding field. “It’s pretty exciting when I go [somewhere] and see my work up on the building,” says York. “I mean it’s very rewarding. Sure, you can click on a website, but it’s not the same as having something in the real environment.”