To the majority of visitors entering and exiting the Netherlands, Schiphol Airport is their first experience of Dutch design. A huge, sprawling transport hub, with 64,000,000 travellers passing through annually, it’s a model of Dutch ordered efficiency, replicated by countless other airports globally. A good part of the airports success can be attributed to something we take wholly for granted — it’s award winning wayfinding system. Seamlessly consistent in every aspect from approach road to gate it helps ensure you park, check-in, shop, board and ultimately fly away with stress levels at a minimum — a welcome relief for many a weary traveller.
Paul Mijksenaar, the Dutch design hero responsible for the wayfinding system at Schiphol has dedicated his career to helping people navigate through public spaces. I visited him at his design agency in Amsterdam to interview him about his work and ask him why he is always getting lost.
GS: You must have been interviewed many times. What’s the question everyone asks you, are you bored of being asked it and do you have a stock answer prepared for it?
PM: Yes, I like that very much. The most asked question is, how did you get into this business? Nobody asks why are you a graphic designer? But wayfinding is something special. People feel it’s more an aberration than a real skill. Of course I get bored of this question. One of the stock answers is, that when I was 8 years old I was on vacation with my parents in the car France. They were parked on a steep hill and my father always had a nap. I was playing with the car and accidentally released the handbrake. The car started slowly going backwards down the hill while my father was in it sleeping. He woke up and was mad of course. I jumped out of the car and went running into the forest. And I got lost after a while. So maybe that’s the reason I got interested in finding my way. But on the other hand, I could hear my father calling me so there was never a danger. So that was an answer, and everybody likes that answer.
I think I have more, but to be honest, I like travelling and I like transportation and that may be more to the truth. Because when you travel by plane or by car, you get lost, somewhere. And you get annoyed and that’s it. I got my interest in wayfinding at the Rietveld Academy. I had a teacher there who was an industrial designer so I already did my first signing project then. It’s typography, information and space, the use of the space to create a route. So I think it’s more close to the truth.
Then I read an article about Jock Kinneir and that was really the breakthrough. That was already in the time I was at the Rietveld Academy. So, I think, that made me interested. Before I never realised that traffic signs or road signs were designed. Most people think it’s just the government who do that, by a committee or something, like banknotes. Nobody realises. Stamps for instance. Nobody ever realises that designers do that. So that was nice. It was traveling, it was roads, it was graphic. A three-way unity and that I like.
GS: Is there a question which is never asked, which you think should be?
PM: Well, most people never ask, why do people get lost? That’s a question nobody asks. And that’s good, because I don’t know the answer. That’s the question of my life, but also of my colleagues, because we never are sure. We have some ideas why people get lost, of course. And there is always an argument with architects, because all architects think that their buildings speak for themselves. We know that never happens though, it never works.
There are some examples, like a 19th century railway station or something like that and a concert hall, a theatre or something, then it almost works. But even in a building that looks very natural, looks associative, you will have to find a cloakroom and a toilet. And you will have to go home at the end. So, nobody asks me why people get lost.
We had a strange experience two weeks ago at Schiphol Airport, they are changing a lot. At a certain moment, you may arrive from a non-Schengen country like the US. So you disembark and then there is a decision point. You go right for a transfer, or straight on and then you go to your baggage and exit. And, so I thought this was clear. Or you have to take another flight or you go to exit or baggage claim. So, there are several issues why people are still making the wrong choice. To make a long story short, we realised that some people were taking the exit, and there is no way of return. So, it’s a real problem for passengers, but also for staff. And we just learned by observing people, we asked them, why did you go wrong? We don’t use the word ‘wrong’, but why did you do what you did? And they, the heavy smokers, said they thought they could go out, have a smoke and then make a transfer. I never thought about that. And always something like that you don’t realise. We learn that people are not so stupid. It’s not the stupidity of the traveller, it’s, they have their own agenda, they have their own way of thinking. They make a totally logical conclusion that they think sometimes you can go outside to have a smoke. That you’re not allowed to return, we caused that problem, not them.
GS: In my research into you I saw you described as the Godfather of Wayfinding. An impressive title. Something else which I found not quite so endearing was the New York Times description of you as Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
PM: That’s because, when you read the article, it explains it. As a Dutch designer I think, we are very stubborn, you must know that. So, we think we are right. And even if the client thinks he has the right or he wants to correct, we still think he is doing wrong. Because we are the expert, we want to have it done like this. So, that’s the Nurse Ratched comparison. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’ Nest she tells the patients how to get cured. That’s the same thing. I remember, in Abu Dhabi, the Sheik, he asked me, ‘Can the patient be cured?’, talking about his airport. So it’s the same thing. And some people call me doctor. In Frankfurt they called me doctor. And they made a cartoon of me. We had an office there. But regarding the nurse comparison, it’s the ‘We are doing right and you have to obey me, even if you are the client’. So, that’s why I like Nurse Ratched.
GS: Okay, you like it, good.
PM: Yes I like it. You have to understand the movie and you have to understand why it is there. None of us is a guru. Guru is an often abused word of course and the best one is that I’m compared to is God. We once did an estimate for the Amsterdamse Theatre Schouwburg. I knew their director a little. And so I was in Italy, on vacation, I live for half a year in Italy. I came back and went to a performance or event in the Schouwburg. While there I asked the director why we didn’t hear anything about the commission. No, you were too expensive, he said. I said, no, no, no. And that cannot be true. We are an Amsterdam located firm and we should do that. The price shouldn’t be a problem. But they had already commissioned another office in The Hague. But the director was a brave guy, so he cancelled the already given job to that office. They were not happy of course.
And then he said to the other agency: you’re a great design office, but if you can have God, we take God.
GS: The ultimate compliment?
PM: Higher you cannot go.
GS: In your own words you describe that you always get lost. Is that sometimes intentional?
PM: No, no, no, because I take everything literally. For example I walk in a corridor and see an arrow to the right. So I turn to the right. And often I stumble into a blind wall. Because they mean, after twenty meters you go right. It happened last week, I’ve forgotten where it was. It happens all the time. So I take everything literally. So I get lost easily. I trust the system to find out that the system is not trustworthy. That’s why I get lost.
GS: We were interested when we arrived to see your own company signage work.
PM: But could you find the door bell?
PM: Because that’s still an issue here.
GS: The first quote, certainly the quote about being the godfather of wayfinding, now knowing the god part as well, illustrates to me that you are clearly among one of more influential Dutch designers of your era. You’ve carved out a significant niche for yourself within this particular wayfinding world, as well as the larger design world.
PM: But I’m a less talented graphic designer than Jan van Toorn, or Wim Crouwel. But it’s the combination that makes it. And the systematic analytical work of psychology and of course the function of signing. It’s not a poster for a gallery or something like that. I’m also less interested in the graphic, not in the quality, but let’s say the depth of the graphic. It’s not a poster, it’s a functional thing. I’m not a psychologist, I’m not the best graphic designer. So it’s more a combination. It’s one and one is three, as I say.
GS: Let’s talk about Dutch design. I mentioned earlier about this moment where the lights came on for me regarding Dutch design.
Are you aware of any movement in the nineties to promote Dutch design? I’ve asked several people and they’ve touched on a few things, which I think are interesting.
PM: Yes, but you mentioned the names of Rick Poyner etc. but these names were totally unknown by me. They are more the philosophers on Dutch design, on a philosophical field or theoretical artistic view, you know. They take the link with Mondriaan and the Dutch tradition, or Rietveld. But I wasn’t aware of that. I had my niche, as you said correctly. And I never was conscious of being part of Dutch design, that only came later. That was a label other people put on us. Suddenly I was in the Dutch design arena. But it never was intended or never felt like that. Gert Dumbar and Wim Crouwel, but that was another game, another field. Of course I have the same qualities, you can say. So I’m familiar with Wim Crouwel in a certain way. But I never felt about Dutch design.
For example, I have so many clients in the airport industry. If I mention the word Dutch design, they get frightened, because they never heard of Dutch design at all. They never heard about Wim Crouwel and whatever. They only think that makes it more expensive or it will take longer. It will take a lot of discussion.
Usually they have a problem. Take a hospital, for instance. People get lost and give the hospital bad ratings. They then they ask the secretary, who are the specialists for that? They call an airport colleague and they say, you need a wayfinding expert. And then they call us. But never because we were fantastic Dutch designers. It never happened.
GS: When I’ve asked this question to others it’s had a different relevance. The blanket term ‘Dutch Design’, was used a lot in the early 90’s. Do you think it still has a relevance today?
PM: It depends from what side you are looking. As I said, for us, it is not an issue, but in a way it works in that we are going with the stream. We are, for example, invited to a design show in Milan. So, it’s more we are on their radar. So it’s more the outside, than the direct. And I see some things in common with, of course Wim Crouwel. We are functionists, we are modernist, but in another field. We worked in New York for a long time, for the New York airport. There was an American architect and he worked for a long time for a Dutch client. It was a kind of engineering agency. He said, I learned two things from the Dutch. Drinking a lot of coffee during meetings and contradicting your boss. And that was interesting, because that’s what Dutch designers do. That’s the Nurse Ratched thing. And in America or in France, in a meeting, one never contradicts his or her boss. It never happens. And there is another thing we noticed if, for example, we have a design solution. We present it and sometimes the client asks, is this the only option? For me, it is the only option, because I work totally systematically. I’m making choices every time, on a functional, on a logic base. So, at the end there will only be one solution. Maybe there are other options, an alternative because of money maybe, so there is some space to manoeuvre. So I learnt to develop and present at least two routes. Some clients like to have options. But not in the US. When I present them three options they get angry. They say, why do we have the choice? You are the professional, that’s why we are hiring you. Tell me what we do and we will proceed. Skip that nonsense.
GS: That’s music to many designers ears isn’t it?
PM: No, it can be dangerous. Especially when there are new elements, or new items, we still have to test it, to prove it. And we know from our experience or from our scientific approach, about eighty percent of the solution. But there is always a certain part we are not totally sure of. We have to see if it works. It depends on the focus of the client or his emphasis, what he wants to do. So we give them choices. We need to give them choices, because we are not sure what they want. And sometimes the client doesn’t even know what he wants. We have to prepare that maybe he means something different. If you do it exactly on your own, without talking with the client, then you can make terrible mistakes. Even if you think you do the right thing. Most clients, like Schiphol Airport, the Dutch Railways, many others, we have long discussions. With the architect, with the client, and it helps. But you need a good client. We have very good clients. We can discuss and sometimes we win, sometimes we choose for another option because of the client. You need a good client. Of course, every designer will agree with that.
GS: What do you see as the major differences between Dutch and British design?
PM: I’m very fond of British design, especially in my trade, wayfinding. I think they are number one, before the Dutch. For example, London Transport, maybe not now, but they were for years. It was my inspiration.
It’s like Helvetica and Gill Sans. It’s the same. Helvetica is more the Dutch, German approach. Stiff, straight. And the English use Gill Sans, which is still my favourite typeface. Because it has human, humanistic aspects. Helvetica is the engineering, the military version, so to say. And the Gill Sans is the humanistic. But you have to be a typeface designer to understand the joke about that.
Dutch design often has a twist. If you think Droog Design, for instance, it has something of a twist. I think Dutch design has a twist and British design has flavour.
Take packaging, for example. I had a big collection of British packaging, because I did a big study in 1974. I went to London. I saw many famous British packaging agencies. The packaging design in that era, and maybe it still is, was amazing. It was beyond anything you experienced in Holland. Now, of course, it’s more global.
I collect stamps and the majority are British designed. That’s because British design used to be dedicated to illustration. You see so many fantastic illustrations used in British design. In Holland, if you look at stamps, the illustrations are bad, it’s too conceptual. There are so many beautiful British stamps, because of their illustrations. And they craft the typography nicely, with the illustration. It’s more delicate, it has more flavour. It’s what you would put on your mantelpiece or something. You will never put a Dutch milk package on your wall. So, that’s the difference, twist and flavour.
GS: Let’s talk now about your early life. In my research I saw that you studied at the Rietveld Academy, which was then called the Institute of Applied Arts. You studied product design there, graduating in 1965. In some previous interviews, I saw that there are several other people who studied there like Ben Bos, Wim Crouwel and Jan van Toorn. What was it like to study there? Did you have the feeling it was a special place?
PM: Yes, of course. Wim Crouwel, Ben Bos, they were much older though. So we were never there at the same time. But it was a real applied art academy. It was based on skills. Typesetting was there for years. You learnt a trade. But it was also segregated. We had nothing to do with other courses. It had to do with your teacher. If we were seen with an interior designer, for instance, the teacher would say what are you doing in the other shop? You were not allowed to communicate with other courses.
GS: No cross fertilisation?
PM: No, not at all. But we had a marvellous teacher. We learnt about materials, about production methods and so on. I liked it a lot. So that’s why I learnt product design. I think I’m the only information designer who can make drawings like this. (At this point Paul shows us one of his highly complex technical drawings)
This is what I produced in my studies. It was award winning. I made lots of these these kind of production drawings. That’s what we learned at the Rietveld. That’s unthinkable now. You don’t learn these things anymore. It’s all drawn by hand. And then it went to a manufacturer who was expert in plastic moulding. He then has to fine-tune it. But this is all figured out and done by myself. I found the drawing because we are now compiling the archive for Amsterdam university. I still like it. All hand-drawn by pen including the lettering.
GS: You were born and went to school in Amsterdam?
PM: Yes. When I was sixteen, I went to an introduction evening organised by the school for what to do afterwards. There were people from Art Academies and from Universities there. Each one told you about a different profession and you could then register. I was planning on becoming an electrical engineer at that point. But then I heard someone from the Rietveld Academy. He talked about Industrial Design and I immediately knew that was my thing. And, so it happened. That is very rare because most people, when they are sixteen, have no idea what they are going to do. But I knew from the beginning. That is how it started.
GS: Tell me about getting inspired by the work of Jock Kinneir. That was in 1963, which was just around the time of you finished your studies at the Rietveld Academy.
PM: Yes, I read an article by him published in Design Magazine. That was a real pleasure. So I found out about Jock Kinneir and I interviewed him. I went to his studio in London, in a mews. I remember that very well. He was a nice guy. He said good signage cannot cure sick buildings.
After that, I finished the Rietveld Academy along with my classmate, Gerard Unger. Together we started an office called Sign Design. Unfortunately we forgot to protect the name because it is a good name.
To begin with we wrote two articles. Most designers, they never publish. I have done it with many articles, especially in the beginning, because I had nothing to do. There was no work. I had to wait. We were sitting at the telephone waiting. So we published two articles in an architecture magazine but nothing happened. We thought if it was published on Friday by Monday we would have people calling us all day. But no-one called. Only many years later. But in the end we got recognised. So, in the beginning it was a lot of writing.
GS: Who were your other design heroes?
PM: Jock Kinneir, of course, he is my number one. I like his work and he introduced me to this field. Gerd Arntz was the other. I still find his work unbelievable, beautiful and effective. I still reread his little books. It is still a miracle of clear information design. The sad thing is that he had a higher goal with it. They thought it was an educational tool for lower class and less educated people. It was a part of a socialist idea, they were not communist but they were close. They had a higher goal to explain economics to people who were not trained. That could be me because I know nothing about it. So, it was not symbols but whole diagrams of car sales in America compared to England for example. It was pure information design. The only thing that remains now are the icons of Gerd Arntz. He is still my hero of course.
Nigel Holmes is another one. We became friends when we met at a conference. He is also a master in information graphics that are accessible for the public. He was designer director at Time Magazine in New York for many years. So, these three.
GS: In hindsight what career would you have liked to pursue if you hadn’t become a designer?
PM: Well as I said, I would have chosen for electronic engineering because that was my favourite thing. But to be honest, you had to be very good at mathematics, and I wasn’t so good. So if you fail at mathematics, you can always be designer.
I also wanted to be taxi driver for a long time. A professional driver. And I made an advertisement to be a professional driver but nobody called ever. So there was something with transportation.
GS: Let’s move on to your career as a professional designer. After leaving education you were freelance as an industrial designer from 1966 until 1978. You then joined Total Design as a senior designer.
PM: First I went to Delft University. That was five years earlier as I am aware. I was assistant to Ootje Oxenaar. Wim Crouwel was also teaching there. He asked me to join the university because he knew my articles. He liked designers who knew how to write and teach. So it was a full time job in the beginning. For five years as a full-time job. Then Wim’s colleague Loek van der Sande, asked me to join Total Design. So for the next five next years I was half time Total Design and half time at the university.
GS: Tell me what it was like to work at Total Design.
PM: That was in the time of Loek van der Sande and Wim Crouwel of course. They wanted to have fresh blood so to say. Anthon Beeke and Jurriaan Schrofer came there. So at a certain point they wanted new young people. I was rather young of course compared to Ben Bos and others. As a newcomer I could add some theoretical background. I was already well-known for my signage — the theoretical, psychological part. So that is the reason they asked me. In the end I had my own team and we had to be self supporting. But it was nice, because we did the Amsterdam metro. So it was good for business, but it was not really a rich addition to the company I think. So after five years I made up my mind and I quit both the university and Total Design in the same day. On 1st of April 1986.
The funny thing is I went to Ben Bos, because he was the managing director and I said Ben I want to quit. He said that took you a long time. I was expecting it already for a long time. But I never regretted it. It was a nice location and it was fun to do.
GS: So let’s go back a bit to 1977 and your time as assistant to Ootje Oxenaar. How was it assisting him?
PM: That was fantastic. He had a lot of charisma. He was a great lecturer. He was speaking for three/four hours and I was responsible for changing the many slide cases. I learnt so many things about taste, taste in art, what is good art and what is a good design in an artistic way. I was really, we call it hanging on his lips. So I was sitting on the first row of the college benches. And it was in one word great. He had flavour you know? He was not a Dutch designer in that way. He was a romanticist in a way. It is mostly about taste. That is what he said. A designer needs taste. And of course it is difficult to describe what taste is. But it has to do with taste, with harmony and all the elements. It really enriched my way as a designer.
And later I worked for him. He was also head of the aesthetic department of the PTT, the Dutch post office and he was a commissioner later. I did some stamps and other things. Annual reports I did for him. But it was thanks to him. Especially for the taste thing.
Later they asked me to follow him as a design professor at Delft University in 1992.
GS: Let’s move on to founding your agency, Mijksenaar, in 1986. What was your motivation in setting up the agency, what was it like in the beginning, and who were your first clients?
PM: Well to begin with I was by myself at home. No clients, no space, no agency. So I bought a desk and put it in the bedroom. I ordered a second landline telephone and I hired a secretary. I thought, whatever happens, I need a secretary, because they did the typing and took care of the bills etc. But she couldn’t sit in the bedroom of course. So I needed an office. Thankfully I quickly got some big projects. Mostly from the world of printers, so in graphic design. I had a big client from a bank They were responsible for the electronic exchange of banking. And they had an annual report and they had lots of money. And I hired illustrators. Some of them were former students at the academy. So I did many logos, many house styles in that time. And within one or two months, I had already a lot of work.
And then I got a little commission for a hospital, for signing, and then it started. And then, at a certain moment, Pieter Brattinga called me. He had won the commission for the signing of the Amsterdam Metro. And he formed a little working group. Gerard Unger and Anton Beeke were there. Siep Wijsenbeek from the Dutch railways was there. And a technical illustrator, Paul Laarhoven, to make the drawings. And me. Peter was more chairperson, he was not designing. And that was great, because we did all the analysis and I figured out a system. I was responsible for the typographical system and the flow. And the amazing thing is that I gave the metro numbers, but they didn’t want it. And thirty years later they introduced them. Before there were no numbers.
My first commission on my own was Schiphol Airport. They were changing a lot, a new terminal and new roads etc. That was a funny story, how I got the commission. I knew the head of the design department of Schiphol Airport and we got along well. The wayfinding at the time was designed by Benno Wissing at Total Design. Long, long before, maybe twenty years before. And he was no longer involved. He was living in America and Total Design did nothing for Schiphol Airport anymore, so they did it themselves.
Which meant there was chaos. Everyone did something their own thing so it was total chaos. So the head of the design department at Schiphol, said, because he knew my articles, can you give a talk to my colleagues here about the terrible situation of the signing here at the moment. Because it is totally out of hand. He provided me with a photographer, and we did two big walks around the airport. And we made photos. I was shocked, it was much worse than I had thought. There was no consistency and the system was totally free. So I said it’s much worse than I thought, and if I tell them your colleagues will get angry. But I have to, I really cannot say any good word about it. And he said that’s fine, you should tell exactly what you have to - no restrictions. So I made the presentation at Schiphol, in one of their offices. And there were around a hundred people. I was shocked. I said how can hundred people be responsible for just the signing? So that was my opening sentence. People got angry and upset already. Then halfway, some people rose and left the room. They were responsible for the electronic message display board which was a terrible mess.
But one of the people who sitting there was the leader of the whole extension of Terminal 3. It was a big engineering office and he was impressed. So one year later he said, now we have to build a new terminal and a new road. This is the time to review and to rethink the signing. So he wrote a good proposal. And he invited me to join the pitch. There were three in the pitch, I think, Total Design, a signage manufacturer and me. And we won it. To the annoyance of Total Design, of course.
Schiphol gave me total carte blanche, and always my motto is, keep what’s good and only change what is not good. That’s a quotation of the Apostle Paulus. He said the same.
We spent a whole year, and we had an office in Schiphol, just to think about legibility. Use of colour, typeface, icons, because there were no icons in that time. Can we use it and what kind should we use? We worked for a year and what we did first was the analysis from the ergonomics. Not about aesthetics, because the moment you introduce aesthetics, you get lost. Because everyone has an opinion from the director’s wife to his secretary and whoever. So first this is the intention, you have to improve this, you have to sign this document. And then we have the starting point. We didn’t make choices here. But at least it was filtered.
And then, we had the logistics and the terminology. What kind of information you put on the signs and how you say it. I like that most, the terminology. How to address people to do what they have to do.
And since then we worked for them continuously, for thirty years.
GS: The system you created is recognised as a benchmark for modern international airports now and consistently scores highly with travellers. What are the key attributes of the wayfinding system that make it so successful?
PM: Basically I think we developed a system that is consistent from the road to the gate. Consistency is number one. You start with a piece of information and then you have to be continuous, until you reach your destination.
And there’s a lot of jargon used too. We try to remove the jargon. What we did for the New York Airport manual is a good example. I spent a long time rewriting their terminology. And people underestimate that terminology is so important. Graphic designers never think about it. That’s what makes the system. You tell them, first you do this and then that but it’s also a flow process.
GS: Initially what you were doing was called designing signage but is now termed as wayfinding. But what’s the difference between the two things?
PM: Plainly speaking signing means you put up signs. That’s not our goal. No, we have a wayfinding problem, we have a problem that people cannot find their way. And we try to convince the client, especially the architect, that wayfinding is not about signs. So we call it wayfinding, and now we call it even natural wayfinding, or intuitive wayfinding. So, wayfinding is the goal, people have to find their way. We can include everything. It can be sounds, can be just architecture, it can be everything. But signs are actually the last solution. They are really a necessary evil. Of course, we know we will end with a lot of signs.
We really are approaching the field of flow control. That’s the future here. It’s not about interactive or using your mobile phone or GPS. We know from experience in Schiphol Airport that only five percent of people use their smartphone for navigation. They use it for ticket control or whatever, but not that much. Most people rely on information on screens and signs. Some clients I think it’s all about electronic delivery - you don’t need signs, we have an app. But that’s totally untrue. So wayfinding is important.
GS: In 2002 you set up a New York office of the design agency. It later renamed in 2004 as Mijksenaar Arup, in a joint venture with the global engineering firm. What was the purpose of the joint venture and what happened to it?
PM: Mijksenaar and Arup worked together on many projects from the Port Authority project (JFK, LaGuardia and Newark) to Washington Dulles and the rapid train system in San Francisco: Bart. But after 9/11 the work dried up and we basically had to close our NY office waiting for better times to open it up again.
We were actually on our way by plane to New York on the day of 9/11 to start to work on the PATH subway station underneath the Twin Towers. We had to reroute to Montreal and then go by bus. After that the whole world changed.
Hence our relationship with Arup changed and we decided together to cooperate when it makes sense but not to have the joint venture anymore. Actually that is working out really well: Mijksenaar USA just won a big airport project by itself and at the same time we are cooperating with Arup on a parking project in Hoboken.
GS: So the success of your work at Schiphol attracted The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to commission you to redesign the wayfinding of the airports Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark in 2000. Did you follow the same process as Schiphol when developing this work? Did this project lead you to develop any new methods?
PM: No, it’s basically the same. We do everything, it’s the same. Of course, there will be difference in information and the visitors of course, but for the system we have all the same procedure. We have to do analysis, we have to create a flow, we have to bring and make it visible. So it’s only at the end that you have differences maybe in the terminology, in the way people are addressed. But the system is always the same.
GS: At international airports travellers of all nationalities pass through them all the time. A such language can prove a limitation in guiding people. How do you manage to successfully address cultural differences in an airport wayfinding system?
PM: For airports we’ve speak about a kind of lingua franca. So there’s a kind of terminology which is globally the same. Departures, arrivals, gates, et cetera. Most airports have their own language, like Chinese or Spanish and they have the English translation. The point is how to make difference between the two languages. In Asia for instance, all the language is the same way presented. So the information looks overwhelming. But in fact there are four major asian languages — Korean, three Chinese languages, Japanese and then you will have English. It makes it look complex. So one of our goals, if we have bi-lingual or tri-lingual or even quad-lingual, is that we have to find a way to make it still accessible and not overload.
There’s no existing standard international airport terminology. There is, but nobody uses it. So what did we do? We created our own standard terminology and we bring it to every airport. The only problem at the moment is the British and the American thing, like luggage or baggage.
The cultural differences are more in the colour, in appearance and not in the terminology. That’s always the same. We encourage them to use our terminology instead of their own. For example Schengen, non-Schengen. That’s a non-issue. But the airport people think it’s a different way to approach immigration and customs. But for a passenger it’s just some of them pass immigration and other ones don’t. But the process for them is the same. And they have no idea knows which countries belong to Schengen and non-Schengen. Nobody knows. It doesn’t make sense. So we have to convince them that it’s not worth it. It doesn’t make sense. But basically we try to eliminate any cultural difference. But we call them local differences or airport differences.
GS: Let’s talk about icons. Besides legibility, what are the key principles every designer should understand when creating a successful icon?
PM: The theory is that you can only have icons for a concrete existing element. You have to represent something that exists. The moment you want to visualise abstract conceptual ideas, it doesn’t work. The icon is not able to pass this border. It has to be visible elements that you can recognise it.
Hospitals is a good example, for the liver department. They show a liver. I don’t know what a liver looks like. You only see it when our cat eats a mouse and only the liver remains. So now I know. It’s the same for kidney, whatever. And especially the disease and psychiatric symbols — they use waves or labyrinth symbols. That means something is crazy or he’s lost or something. So it’s stupid. It doesn’t work like that.
Jock Kinneir said that it’s better you can teach them English. It would be much more helpful. He hated pictograms for that reason. He said, just learn English. Much easier. It’s easier to learn and the nice thing, if you learn these words, you can go to the restaurants, you can use the same language for thousands of other reasons.
So it’s stupid, you have to learn icons. It is, how we say, overrated. Stick to simple icons for toilets for instance. You especially see big companies. They like to add more icons because it’s attractive, but it doesn’t mean people understand them.
GS: How important is typography in a wayfinding scheme? If it is important, what in your opinion makes for a great typeface?
PM: Typography is key, because it’s the arrangement of information. I developed a system because there’s a list of eight variables in typography. What is important for readers, what can they see? And there are all kinds of tools on how you can achieve it. People always react on formal experiences. So if you create typography that is totally different in every aspect than the formal experience, people won’t understand. They’re very traditional and conservative. So you can play a little, but not with everything, not unlimited.
So typography is key, but typeface is totally different. There’s a list of eight parameters. Size, alignment, contrast, Italic or Roman, length or width of the rule. So, about eight, the last one is typeface. So typeface is for most readers not an interest. They hardly can see between a serif and a sans serif. They can see there’s something wrong, but they don’t know why. They have no preference. Well they have preference for serif typefaces, that’s for sure. You cannot address a function to it, because people don’t see it. Only when you can see them together, sometimes and then even that.
I have an anecdote for that. I was once asked to talk about typefaces at a typography conference in Minnesota. For my students in Delft I used to do an exercise with seven typefaces — Helvetica and six other sans serif typefaces — where I put the names in different fonts. So Helvetica is set in Gill etc. The students in Delft you cannot blame for not getting it right, but I also did the same exercise at that conference. They recognised the Helvetica and Gill, but that’s all. The rest they couldn’t get. And we are talking about a group of experienced professional type designers. They cannot see between type families you know? Sans serif type faces. So how can the public ever know? For years and years I always used Gill Sans, but for signing we mainly use Frutiger and nowadays also the fonts of some Dutch type designers but never the Helvetica! The main difference is that the Frutiger the typeface is more open. A 3 and an 8 in Helvetica from a distance look the same. In Frutiger you can clearly see the difference between a 3 and an 8 or a 6 and a 9 or something like that. The typeface has to be open.
GS: Let’s move on to Hollywood and the 2004 film The Terminal with Tom Hanks. You were design consultant on the film.
PM: That’s a big word. We were a consultant of course. We worked with the set designer. So he travelled with Steven Spielberg, he worked for him many times, all around the world’s airports, to see what is the best location. In the end they chose JFK, that had just been finished by us and they liked it. But the New York Port Authority didn’t give them permission to make the movie in the real terminal. So what he had to do, he had to rebuild a terminal in an old hangar. It was a full-scale hangar, two floors, elevators, escalators, everything worked. And everything on marble because there’d be five hundred extras walking on it, so it must be sturdy and solid. And in almost every way it was a real building. But there were no runways. That was all projected on the set. And so what they did was called Port Authority and said who did your sign designs. That’s Mijksenaar in Amsterdam they replied. They called me then and I was at a SEGD meeting in Denver to get an award. One hour before I got the award they asked me to fly the next day to Hollywood.
They said we’ll send you a ticket, come tomorrow, we’re expecting you. So I flew to ‘Universal City’ (Hollywood) and they were doing a kind of test with me. There were already hanging little signs to see if they would work. And I could immediately see they did everything wrong. The signs were more or less ok but the whole flow was not OK. They were mixing everything. So I said OK and we did a proposal and they sent us all the floor plans, like a real commission. Then I got an invitation by the personal team of Steven Spielberg, that I was invited to go to the set. And I’m Dutch, so I said where do I send the bill? I then heard an explosion from Hollywood! Money, money! It’s an honour, we never invite people on the set, never. Only his father will be there and someone from the Port Authority and you. It’s an honour! Oh, sorry I said. So I have to fly and to hire a car because it was somewhere on an airport base, somewhere in the Nevada desert.
It was a huge hangar where they built and repaired stealth bombers. It was amazing. Outside there were three helicopters for Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Catherine Zeta-Jones. So there is only one rule here, you have to stay behind the back of Mr Spielberg. So if he moves, you move. He was watching the set from a big monitor. Everything was wired to him. And so I said — OK, I don’t send the bill, but I would like a photo shot with Mr Spielberg. OK, they said, we can arrange it. And at about four o’clock, he turned around and said — Oh, you’re the man of the signs. And then we arranged a meeting, a photo moment and I had one of my books as a gift for him. I had one copy for him and one for Tom Hanks. I gave it tom him and he was turning the pages and — Oh, it’s a lovely book and Oh, I like that. Oh, my son would like that too and Oh, that’s nice. Then his assistant told Steven we have to go on. He said — Oh, sorry, put it in my helicopter.
That is my next dream, that I have an helicopter and someone to say put it in my helicopter. It was great and the movie was great. The quality of the signboxes is even better than in the real New York Airport.
GS: What has been the most challenging project you’ve taken on?
PM: Of course, I can say Schiphol, but that is so obvious. New York Airport was challenging, because it was a total different world.
One of the most challenging…Frankfurt Airport was challenging because were not allowed to let it look like Schiphol. In that time Frankfurt was the biggest competitor of Schiphol so we had to try to find a way to apply our system in a way we called the embedded colour system. So the signs are still blue, because they had it already, and we embedded the same colours as we do here. We call it embedded, so overall it looks blue, but then you have the colour thing.
One of the most rewarding was a museum here in Amsterdam, Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder. It’s in the middle of the Red Light District. I knew the director, she’s now the director of the Amsterdam Museum. The problem was that it’s a museum and a monument at the same time. And it was getting increasingly popular, with almost 100,000 visitors. The carpet was original, everything, so they had to build a cloakroom and ticket room. And when it’s raining, they had damp clothes, so that adds a lot of moisture. It was a real logistical nightmare so they had to change something. And then there was a little alley on the corner on the canal and they were able to build onto the house adjacent to the other side of the alley. But the only problem was the connection. There was a cloakroom, everything and lockers, but if it’s wet, then they still had to cross the street and to return. So it was still not a good solution and so the architects had the idea of glass corridors on the first and the second floors. It’s a very narrow building, it’s an old church, so it was a very difficult. But that was refused by the committee and the heritage board. No way can you build a visible glass box to go into the building. And so several other solutions were proposed. Of course, maybe a tunnel or something, but they couldn’t figure it out and so they invited me to think with them. And then I realised that the Louvre does the same thing. So I said no, you don’t have to make a tunnel, you need a ‘plaza’, you have to make a big square. It means it’s higher than a tunnel and is even so big you can use it for an introductory exhibition. So a kind of introduction to the museum before you enter the museum. And that was really a breakthrough. But the budget went up a lot with this idea. But she found the money and now, it’s an amazing success. Only later I realised that the Louvre did the same thing.
GS: You are quoted as saying the more signs you see, the worse the architecture. Describe your relationship with architects.
PM: We were afraid that you would ask that question, because it’s a delicate situation. We work with architects. I have to something though. It’s a delicate balance and it depends with the architect of course. We work with some, like UNStudio, Ben van Berkel. They have a feel for us. But sometimes the two never will meet.
I give a good example of the Rotterdam Schouwburg. Well, so you go down and you have to go up to the auditorium, to the concert, to the theatre. You’re going up and then you go in and downstairs is the restaurant, the bar and the lounge. So in the interval you have to go down. So the question is where do you put the toilets? That’s always an issue, where to put the toilets. And the architect put them halfway. Nobody could find them, because people expect the toilet somewhere in the corner of the bar. And in the theatre they would expect it somewhere also in the corner. Nobody thinks about going down or going up, so that was a real problem. And there’s a famous station in Canary Wharf, London. It’s made by Norman Foster. The opening is nice because everyone understands this is an exit and an entrance. And you have maybe six escalators here. You enter in a big hall and then you go down. And here you see two doors, the men’s toilets and a workers entrance. So the question is where do you think the women’s toilet is?
GS: It should be next door, shouldn’t it?
PM: We think so. But an architect thinks symmetrically so the door is directly opposite. But this must be fifty metres away. So people have no idea where it is. From an architects point it is beautiful. Otherwise you have three doors and here nothing. And I cannot blame them, but we have a problem. That illustrates the discussions which sometimes we win, sometimes we lose.
GS: How do you think wayfinding will evolve in the future?
PM: We have started a department called Research & Development, also because everyone wants to go digital. But as I said before it’s not going that fast and not so wide, not so deep. We have to add digital issues like wayfinding routes or information. Or maybe even augmented reality and things like that. Everyone is asking for it, but that doesn’t mean that the requirement is there still. We know we have to provide it. So we will do it and it’s fun to do. You can also design more easily with digital tools.
GS: Let’s talk about your collections now. There are two parts to the question. First one is about your donation of 700 items to the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam in 2011.
PM: I have to correct you, it’s not 700, but almost 3000, mostly contemporary maps. Yes, my wife — our librarian — counted 2464 maps alone. And there are more still. There are maps, user instructions and we have also typography. There are a lot of nice books and type font catalogues. And so we donated that. So, they are all there. They have antique maps, the famous atlases and they also have newer maps from cartography.
GS: I was reading about this collecting thing that you are rarely without a swiss army knife when you are travelling, which you use to collect specimens. And that you in 2001, that you had amassed and impressive archive of some 20000 items of user instructions.
PM: Yes, that’s actually 60000. That results are in my book ‘Open Here’ that I wrote with researcher Piet Westendorp.
GS: What is your favourite item in the archive?
PM: I think I have two original London underground maps designed by Harry Beck. Not original in the way that I don’t have a hand drawing. It must be 30 years ago or something, some students and I looked at how to improve the London Underground map. We published about it. And we were very kindly invited to the London transport headquarters at that time. They gave us as many maps as we could take and they are large size, we don’t use this size in Europe. They are huge. We could hardly find a store, a cabinet. I have one framed in my house. I think we got between three to ten and now you can’t really buy them. So, that’s one of my favourites also because I know about the history.
Only later I found the deeper elements of the map and how clever it was. And also the problems it causes because it’s an underground map and you cannot make the relation with the ground above. Some stations for instance Aldwych and Bank or Temple are on the other side of the road from each other. But if you follow the map it takes you three quarter of an hour. So, that’s the disadvantage of these kind of schematic systems.
So, that’s my favourite, but it’s like music with some people, they always come back to Bach. It’s like that. I like a lot of music, but at the end you go back to Bach or whatever. Beck is my Bach.
GS: Let’s talk now about your award honouring functional design. You set up the bi-annual prize in 2011 when the winner posthumously was Edward Hines for the white line in the centre of the road. In 2013 Hugo Bollen was awarded the prize for innovative cycle network sign posting and then IKEA won in 2015 for its instructional manuals. Why did you set up the award and what criteria do you use for judging?
PM: A good friend of mine is Joost Elffers, a book publisher and former member of our advisory board. He often comes visiting and lives in New York. One time I brought him to the airport and while we were driving I said, there are so many awards for graphic design, for the aesthetic part of it. There is no prize for the functional part. So I was complaining about that and he said — create your own prize. The disadvantage is I cannot give myself an award. So, there is a sacrifice here, but at least I have created a platform to honour mostly anonymous people, like IKEA, nobody knows who designed them but there is a whole department. 100 years ago, Mr. Hines invented the white centre line in the road, which is great. And he is dead. So the head of the road department of Michigan took the prize. And it’s a great start, because it’s just a simple white line in the street and that’s the beginning of information design.
And then Mr. Bollen, he invented the cycle route signing. And he is an unemployed mine engineer, but he was living in that area. And his wife got mad about all the time watching for signs and maps, so he invented a list of numbers for cyclists so you can cycle for three hours without any sign at all.
It has no other meaning than being functional but also beautiful, it can be beautiful also. And then, IKEA. I admire IKEA because they have a clear, three dimensional isometric view and they are really a breakthrough for people buying furniture in packages to build themselves. Of course, there are a lot of complaints but they still do a great job. I like the graphics sometimes and not but it’s not intended to be nice. I already know the next award, but I won’t tell you.
GS: We are approaching the end now. So, let’s talk about outside interests. What are the biggest changes you witnessed in the Dutch design profession over the years?
PM: There is always a dark part in me, which says there is more competition, I started a niche, I was the only one in Holland. But now it’s well-recognised, that’s an achievement, so now a lot of people think about wayfinding. There is more competition, especially by architects. In the crisis three years ago architects who had no work said we can do that ourselves. And the sign manufacturers, they are competitors, they’re doing more and more. And sometimes they stole our designs because we published about it. In our own way we have to be one step further. So there is much more competition but on the other hand, it’s two sided. It’s also because there is now more awareness of wayfinding than when we started. That’s the biggest change. We don’t have to explain all the time what we are doing because they know much more now. We also increase the awareness and we create the array of potential clients. There are clients now that maybe ten years ago never thought about wayfinding at all. Department stores, museums or so many things because now they are aware. That’s the biggest change.
And for us, the change that we are going to is digital, especially in the flow thing, I’m always discussing, should we employ architects. But that’s too early because then we do build and they can say we manufacture. We never would do manufacturing because then it binds our hands, so to say. We want to be independent, also to Architects. I think it’s all positive, only we have to work a little harder. But we also develop more technology, tools to make it more easy. Because we spend a lot of time to gather client’s data. What are the destinations, the maps and so? We try to make that efficiently. To get the information data easier, from the client or by ourselves. And we are much more professional. Even five years ago we were less professional, and ten years ago, I did everything. I did the map of the Airport train at New York. I had to show them an example because it was a new air train. It wasn’t open yet and I wanted to show them what a good transportation map looks like — the connections and the terminals and the public transport to New York. So I did it all in one night in PowerPoint, even three dimensional terminals. It was difficult, because you have to add and distract forms — to make a quarter shape was very difficult in PowerPoint. And we had to count the layers because it doesn’t show layers. So I had to make notes of which layers I was working on because you cannot see it anymore. It was a great job, just in PowerPoint. But it was just an example. They agreed on it and so I said to the manufacturer that he should produce them. And I said I would give them the sample and you have to reorganise it in InDesign or whatever. And they just copied the PowerPoint! Then a half year later I saw my PowerPoint large like this. It was not fit for that purpose. That thankfully happens no longer and we are now more professional.
GS: Having designed so many of great wayfinding systems, how much of a source of annoyance is it for you to arrive in a new destination and be confronted with a poorly designed one?
PM: You know, it’s very difficult. For example, if I go to Florence airport or whatever airport and it’s a total mess. Or people tell me or call me when they get lost. Sometimes we write to them and invite ourselves, but that never works. Inviting yourself in the design field doesn’t work, it’s like supplying the pencils. They want to have the cheapest and so that doesn’t work. So we have to wait until people come to us. And mostly it comes by itself, not by ourselves. That’s the best way, because then you are already on a better platform. So the first answer is that I get annoyed. How can people do such a lousy job?
GS: Where is your favourite place to get lost?
GS: Easy to get lost there as well I imagine?
PM: Yes. I designed a pedestrian wayfinding system for Venice, as part of a workshop there. It never happened but it’s a good system, all based on connecting bridges.
GS: About awards. Last year you received a lifetime achievement reward from the BNO — the Piet Zwart Prize. In the past you have also won many others. Which prize was the most meaningful?
PM: Two years ago was the Fonds van Beeldende Kunst It no longer exists. That was also a lifetime achievement. But the Piet Zwart Prize is, because the jury is formed by colleagues. In a way, it’s more rewarding and attracts much more attention. And the nice thing is I prepared a very nice speech about the future, how you can predict the future or cannot. How you can deal with the future. And I hope now when they do it they will ask the new award winners the same. But the other was more, let’s say was more state, and that was also very nice to have. So, in professional life I think you’re at the top of the hill, so no complaints.
GS: Is it important for designers to win awards?
PM: I doubt it, we doubt it. First, the client doesn’t know any of these awards, as I told you exactly and its more American. It’s nice, they hired an award-winning agency, you see the quotation, but they never tell you how much. We can use that phrase for maybe 100 years, because we are an award-winning company. But for work it’s nice because it creates increased awareness of your work. That’s why I like to have these awards because now people understand, they have access to my work and I can tell about it. But there are so many awards and sometimes they are very expensive. As we are focused on functionality it doesn’t make much sense for us.
GS: So, last two questions. Your son works here as you said, how is that and do you complement each other?
PM: I am not here on a daily basis so I don’t work with him regularly. Sometimes I do and we did something with the parking garage at Schiphol. He is much more into the details and sometimes I’m finished in one hour with a solution and he is not satisfied and stays the whole weekend to find better ways. And mostly he is right. I am much more practical but he is very good at thinking out of the box. I’m setting out a course and he is more looking around and I am only saying that because that’s the difference between him and me. I was totally amazed that he wanted to work in the same field and he is very good in it and he did a good effort publishing about it. He started from zero and he is sometimes better than I am in some aspects. And that’s amazing. But that’s the atmosphere in this office, because the people, they use the models. We have a whole scale system of models we use, and that’s good that its more levelled. It’s not like in a family company, with the whole dynasty, we don’t have that here. I already sold the office before he came in, so he is now one of the many. But its good because if you are the son of the boss, I don’t think it’s an advantage in a design company.
GS: Last question then. What, in your opinion, is your greatest achievement so far?
PM: Well, as a result of all this thinking, I think it’s that I brought awareness and put wayfinding on the map, so to say. When I started, nobody knew about it, it was just the road signs what everybody knows and nobody knows that it was the government. So I brought the awareness and started this company and its been blossoming ever since. Even when I sold my shares it’s exploded, in all ways, in professionalism, in the digital way, in everything. And yes, I am proud that I started it, that’s all I can say. And I am still involved and have so much information and models to still share. Yes, well I must be a happy designer. Cannot be different.
GS: Thank you so much for your time.
PM: Yes, it was fun to do. Thanks for your great preparation and its totally different than any other interview we had.
About the author:
Graham Sturt is Creative Director of Dutch design agency VBAT.
Originally from England, he lived and worked in London for more than a decade before relocating to Amsterdam in 2007 to follow his passion for Dutch design.