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Flight Patterns

By Marge D. Hansen

Our ancestors used environmental cues to make their way into, through and out of a given space, actively landmarking routes and noting natural features like a stream or row of trees as a means of finding their way. Times have changed, but our instincts remain the same.

Today, the egocentric view (what we see) pairs with the exocentric view (what we know). Good design enlightens the exocentric view, helping people better understand their surroundings, according to Jeffry Corbin, founder and Chairman of Corbin Design in Traverse City, Mich., whose firm specializes in wayfinding and environmental graphic design. “Humans will naturally prefer to turn right instead of left,” he says. “We tend to walk toward light and away from darkness. After a certain distance, if we are unsure about our path, we seek confirmation of that path.”

At its best, wayfinding — the process of supplying people with the information and understanding they need to comfortably navigate an environment — does not guide as much as it does beckon. “In other words, we are drawn to distant objects more readily than we are nudged along a complicated pathway by a series of signs,” Corbin says.

People first became acquainted with the term wayfinding when Romedi Passini, a Canadian architect, published Wayfinding in Architecture in 1984. Now, it “has made its way into the vocabularies of planners and decision makers and is a design discipline taught in our universities,” says Lance Wyman of Lance Wyman Ltd., New York.

Environmental cues (ceiling heights, straight halls) along with sensory cues (visual, auditory and tactile clues) and signage, which includes mapping, are tools that support self-guidance. People on the move rely on good design to lead them to their destinations. When design fails as a result of counter-intuitive traffic patterns or confusing information, humans become frustrated. As stress levels increase, the ability to take in information decreases. To minimize uncertainty, Corbin emphasizes the importance of providing only the information they need only when it’s needed.

User-Friendly Navigation

Many built environments negotiated every day are stressful by virtue of their purpose: city streets, work places, transit systems, hospital complexes and the 21st-century hub of anxiety — airports. “Our experiential research tells us that people are comfortable moving 125 feet inside a building and 500 to 600 feet in an exterior setting before they want to see further confirmation of their location,” says Corbin, whose firm is currently collaborating with Hunt Design Associates, Pasadena, Calif., on Los Angeles’ $2 million “Downtown LA Walks.”

The Los Angeles project requires both motorist and pedestrian directives. Corbin and Hunt helped identify 13 city districts most recognized by the public. Color-coded icons on almost 700 downtown signs and street-corner maps represent each district. “Effective wayfinding often involves redundancy, providing the same information in different ways at different levels,” he says.

In Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, the Ottawa MacDonald-Cartier International Airport’s wayfinding signage program was directed by Chris Herringer, Senior Design Associate at Gottschalk+Ash International in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. “In this airport, signs are a punctuation mark to the decision, rather than the only means of information,” Herringer says. The airport earned a Society for Environmental Graphic Design 2004 Merit Award.

To harmonize with the open floor plan of the “transparent” structure, Herringer’s team designed an unobtrusive, bilingual, post-mounted system that uses LED “points of light that direct passengers to a path, and a wash of light identifies the destination gate. Keeping the nomenclature simple is less stressful for passengers,” Herringer says. “We used cross-cultural terms for bilingual information and tried to keep to one word as often as possible.”

Eliminating confusion is the essence of effective wayfinding. At Swedish Medical Center, Seattle’s largest hospital, Corbin Design helped minimize disorientation caused by using different names for the same department. Now, as an example, what was once referred to as ambulatory or day surgery is standardized as Outpatient Surgery.

Familiarity is not typically an obstacle in the work place, but architects and designers can make significant contributions to the way in which workers, as team members and individuals, use the immediate space around them. Comfort, safety and functionality are paramount. These elements encourage productivity and help create collaborative synergy.

Chicago’s Studio Gang Architects has experimented with breaking down the barriers between work and group spaces. They recently did a study for a Chicago-area advertising agency where communication and open debate are highly valued. Here, the creative staff often comes together in clusters yet still retains places where individuals can brainstorm on their own. Studio Gang looked at how to design an open, airy setting where desks, walls and partitions were actively moveable and horizontal surfaces abounded on which to pin sketches. The goal: Match the flexibility of the environment to the creative work done there. “Being less divided, this business model promotes shared knowledge and an exchange of new thoughts. We wanted people to rub shoulders vicariously or actively,” says Mark Schendel, who with Jeanne Gang, is a Principal of the firm. “There are fewer landmarks with which to wayfind, but at the same time, any chaos in that environment is welcomed. There is a different cadence to productivity in this type of space.”

In a retail setting, designers use a variety of sensory cues to attract and hold shoppers’ attention. “There are a series of highs and lows that are the emotional heartbeat of any experience,” says Tomas Ancona of A + A, Creative Strategies and Design in Portland, Ore. “You orchestrate elements of design to produce the effect you are looking for. You create a pace.”

Ancona recently worked on a project with giant U.K. retailer Marks and Spencer, where they incorporated sound in order to merchandise product. “We created a series of sub-branded environments — classic woman, kids and executive — throughout their Marble Arch store in London and matched each with a collection of music appropriate to the customer. By creating different sound zones, we successfully brought life to the products and surroundings,” Ancona says.

What's Next?

“In the future, I don’t see the basic layers of wayfinding design changing much,” Wyman says. “I do see rapidly changing technology empowering some of the layers to the point where they will be commonly integrated with other aspects of our daily lives.”

Corbin envisions “greater use of electronic screens (plasma and LCD), especially for main directories and specialized information.” Based on lowering the cost of these devices and the ease of integration with IT systems, Herringer anticipates “lighting technology will improve efficiency and provide better sustainable design.”

Ancona sees a continuing crossover effect. Those experienced in themed entertainment and theatrical design will create compelling retail and work-place spaces based on strategies that produce a research-based response.

“I think the design professions have arrived at the point where wayfinding specialists should be involved early in the process,” Corbin says. “They would be surprised at the body of knowledge on this subject and the number of capable people who could simplify a project and make it better in the end.”

The Good and the Not-So-Good:

A critique of four major wayfinding systems.

  1. Good: The U.S. Interstate Highway System. “The signage on our nation’s interstate highways is one of the best wayfinding systems ever done. It’s simple, direct, disciplined. It communicates with millions of users each day. The Federal Highway Administration developed the interstate system about 50 years ago according to very specific rules. It certainly could be refined, but considering the complexities of on/off ramps and thousands of destinations, one can really navigate the system pretty efficiently. It is probably the largest wayfinding plan ever developed. Within the framework, it works great.” — Wayne Hunt, Hunt Associates, Pasadena, Calif.
  2. Not-So-Good: Port Authority Bus Terminal, New York.
    “During a couple of recent bus trips from the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 42nd Street in New York, I had a very difficult time finding the location of the ticketing and information areas and the specific bus gate locations. When the terminal was initially renovated, it included well-designed wayfinding with a carefully worked out identity system for the different levels and bus gates, color coding that was helpful and well-located signs. One or more new buildings have been added to the complex. The same kinds of signs have been added, but they are confusing because an important element — identity of different buildings — is missing. There is also much more retail activity, which makes it harder to find the signs when they are there to be found. The context of the terminal has become more complex and the initial wayfinding strategy has not been upgraded in a way to handle the information and direction needs. A wayfinding system is a process, not a final product.” — Lance Wyman, Lance Wyman Ltd., New York
  3. Good: The Arboretum Store At The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, Ill.
    “Judging by the comments and sales volume, the Arboretum Store at The Morton is a resounding success. The store is well situated on the arboretum grounds and has a bright interior display space that opens onto an adjacent, outdoor retail area with decorative garden sculpture, fountains, planters and seasonal plants. Massive windows bathe the store in light. As visitors enter the store, they are drawn to the incredibly pleasant views through the glass window walls. Along the way, they are engaged by the accoutrements, furniture and product displays. A modernistic, floor-to-ceiling tree in primary colors juxtaposed against neutrals was developed for the children’s area, which is at the back of the store. It acts as a wayfinder, sending a very clear message to anyone who enters the store that this is an area they will want to explore.” — Andrew Andoniadis, Andoniadis Retail Services, Portland, Ore.
  4. Not-So-Good: O’Hare International Airport, Chicago.
    “Certain spaces and buildings are designed counterintuitively — they just defy clear explanation on signs. O’Hare International Airport is daunting. Spaces based on curves can be interesting but prevent orientation. Terminals B and C as stand-alones are well-signed. It is the totality of the location that is confusing. The older terminals and roadways have not been brought up to date. They do not allow motorists to efficiently sort through all the choices and find the ones they need. While it is a monumental challenge to retrofit a facility of this size and complexity, multilevel roadways and sorting by terminal name and airline name while attempting to locate arrival and departure areas is next to impossible.” —Wayne Hunt