Are you lost?

There’s nothing worse than wandering round a building looking for a particular location, only to miss it because the sign that tells you that you’ve arrived had been sited on a door and somebody has left the door wide open.

I’ve always considered wayfinding as a real specialisation within the scope of signing overall. It’s a specialisation that’s really dangerous to dabble in whether you’re the manufacturer of the components comprising a way-finding system, or the practitioner who designs and installs them. You have to be really into it, to do it at all well. There are so many factors the end product needs to satisfy and letting any one of them dominate, at the expense of another, leaves you with the ruin of a wayfinding scheme to deal with.

Static Signs
Signs that relate to generally static chunks of infrastructure, such as places Aberdeen or Penzance, have a life span that’s largely a function of the materials they’re made from. When the weather has done its work, the sign will be replaced, in all likelihood with something pretty much identical. That’s because, unless something really unusual happens, Aberdeen and Penzance will always be where they are now but the system will still have to work as there will always be first time visitors needing guidance.

Some wayfinding schemes though, usually point the way to things that are anything but static. People get promoted. Radiology gets a new machine and moves to a bigger room. A new MD is installed and he’s a sales driven animal, so finance is consigned to a new home in a Portacabin by the bins.

A wayfinding scheme has to be updatable to reflect these changes.

Aesthetics gone wrong
I was given to believe that there are forty shades of green. Try telling that to whoever was responsible for the directory in a Nottingham department store I visited. Every little component in the system had been stove enamelled, or painted, in a shade of green close, but not close enough, to its neighbour. Every time a change was made, a new shade of green would find its way into the directory. Eventually, it lost its way completely. A case of aesthetics shot to pieces!

How about the provincial theatre that wanted its wayfinding ‘in character’? No room here for the crisply rendered, get-it-at-a-glance quality of a sharply contrasting sans-serif face and unmistakeable din-standard arrows. Try brown lettering on gold anodised aluminium (one of the most difficult colours to match every time in the anodising process) and, as if that’s not enough, make sure the lettering is Olde English and forget that it has a lower case too. A case of legibility shot ot pieces!

Learning from other industries
Thankfully, wayfinding done well is an absolute joy to behold and there’s quite a bit of it around. Airports, on the whole, get it right. They spend a small fortune on signing because they’re in the business of herding people from one place to another, and their system would simply grind to an excruciating halt if they didn’t do it well. The British road traffic signing scheme is just about the best in the world and, let’s face it, we get plenty of time to admire it at close quarters. You can’t talk wayfinding and transport without mentioning the London Underground.

Its wayfinding scheme is an exemplar of best practice in signing and, in its way, a thing of beauty too. Wayfinding done well is a deep design specialisation. It draws upon knowledge of how type works and how things distilled to the barest essence actually function. The very fact that it’s not a discretionary involvement of the user with the sign, but something closer to necessity, confers upon it a responsibility to do its job and to do it well. No one goal in wayfinding is seconded to another. Whether the scheme sets out to counterpoint the architecture that is its host, or to work with it, it must do so in a manner that sits comfortably with its need to direct and inform. Give legibility its head though, and you may have won in the functional stakes, but you’ll also have blighted the venue with the aesthetics of a car crash.

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