Wayfinding in Public Buildings

As a society, we look towards science and technology to provide us with new ways of making our everyday lives that little bit easier. The good ideas are usually ones that offer an intuitive solution to a problem that affects us all, like getting lost in a public place, for example.

Navigating a route through unfamiliar surroundings may not feel like second nature to everybody. Getting lost, on the other hand, can seem very easy indeed. It is perhaps surprising to learn then that each of us does indeed possess a set of ingrained methods that help us to select a particular route through a new environment. We call the process ‘wayfinding’, and it is increasingly relevant to many areas of design – from town planning to architecture. Although most of the behavioural theories that seek to explain wayfinding are quite new, there is a growing body of research – and accompanying data – that sheds light onto this process.

Wayfinding Processes

One of the more intriguing areas of modern design, the concept of wayfinding looks at factors which may influence the way people move through spaces and environments. From visual cues built into interior plans, to smart circulation systems that tackle congestion in crowded city streets, an understanding of these innate navigational habits can be applied to the design of virtually any environment – and it is completely scalable, too.

Yet, there is no single explanation for our shared patterns of behaviour within these environments. It would be wrong to assume that, given a choice of a red door and a green door, most people would opt for the green door, for example. Real world wayfinding is influenced by a much subtler set of stimuli, where simplicity is the preferred option. This is called the “legibility” of an environment – surroundings that are easy to read are easy to navigate, too.

However, what is legible is not a constant either. Legibility differs perhaps most greatly when you compare responses to indoor and outdoor environments. As a general rule, our external wayfinding is primarily influenced by the physical attributes and layout of our surroundings, whereas interior wayfinding is determined by the purpose of the movement itself. In a public building, one person looking for an exit will select pathways in markedly different ways to another searching for the bathroom, for example. This may seem obvious, but it is when you learn that this behaviour occurs instinctively, even before we have searched for sign posts or information points, that wayfinding becomes really interesting. It is this type of information which can be of vital importance to architects and designers.

Beyond Signage: Directions for a Modern World

But why do we need to replace signs in the first place? There are some clear advantages to a modern system which does not rely entirely on signage for wayfinding. Anybody who has missed their junction whilst driving knows that signs can be removed, damaged, or obscured at the crucial moment. Equally, as a globalised population grows ever more mobile and transnational, we find ourselves in an increasing number of environments where the signs themselves are illegible to us. Providing multilingual translations is impractical; our need to navigate requires a solution not necessarily based in language.

Instead, we can start to consider answers that lie within the design of our public spaces. Clarity and openness are the two key factors that determine whether a pathway can be considered “legible” on an intuitive level.

Practical Wayfinding Systems in Public Spaces

By understanding these patterns of behaviour, a designer can reverse engineer wayfinding systems within a public space and ensure visitors feel instantly at ease, where navigation becomes an intuitive experience.

In practical terms, there are three broad considerations within the design of a public space that may affect the behaviour of those within it. Virtually every aspect of a wayfinding system will fall into one of these categories. We can understand them as: the marking of environments, the grouping of environments, linking these environments together. Each one is a natural progression from the last. The fourth and final step is the communication of this information to the visitor. The fourth stage should be an almost inevitable outcome of the first three being fully achieved.

So what are some methods of achieving this? Again, it would be wrong to search for a single set of designs that hold the answer to all wayfinding systems, but we can think about what clarity and legibility might look like, and how spaces can be made to flow together intuitively. It remains true that, in general, architects still remain adherents to the more traditional methods of design, while seeking to solve wayfinding problems with common answers such as signage. This is often as much a symptom of the constraints of regulation and project objectives as it is personal choice. However, if we can employ our growing understanding of wayfinding into our designs, we can begin to address some of the most basic problems of navigating our modern world.