The Art of Smart Wayfinding
Where am I? Where do I go? How do I get there? How long will it take me?
The Marauder’s Map from the Harry Potter universe was an ingenious piece of technology — a voice-enabled blank parchment that converts into a detailed map revealing every classroom, hallway, corner and secret passage on campus. It even boasts built-in GPS, locating every person in the grounds at all times.
Come to think of it, the Marauder’s Map was a wayfinding marvel. Which is more than one can say for wayfinding in cities today.
Older European cities prioritized pedestrians in their urban planning from the get-go, so finding one’s way wasn’t really an issue. Then cars happened, and suddenly urban planners were more invested in helping drivers speed through flyover lanes than guiding people on foot. The less intuitive the streetscape became, the more the need arose for pedestrian-friendly signs, plaques, banners, arrows and markings to help tourists and residents navigate places.
The ideal wayfinding system tactfully answers several questions for a new visitor: Where am I? Where do I go? How do I get there? How long will it take me?
Environmental graphic design is no small feat. A city should be so well-designed one needn’t ask a stranger for directions.
Today the need for wayfinding is stronger than ever. Recent trends in real estate development have dictated the rise of walkability and carless living in urban neighborhoods — an effort to hand back cities to the walkers. But embedding non-intuitive streetscapes with fixed, physical signage is not enough. Environmental and experiential graphic designers need to come together to help connect our journeys. On a typical day you aren’t just Googling your way from A to B. You want to know what the weather’s like, if construction’s blocking the street, how long you’d have to wait for the train or bus, and the list goes on. If this type of data were available to people in their physical surroundings, wayfinding would gain an extra dimension and help people understand the real-time realities of their journeys with intuitive ease.
Designing wayfinding systems is an important exercise in spatial thinking, but it’s also an opportunity for the static, physical world to match our dynamic, digital world. Although citywide wayfinding projects like WalkNYC already are underway, the industry faces exciting challenges ahead. Environments like airports and large offices (case in point: R/GA) are contingent on seamless, efficient wayfinding signage. These spaces emphasize quick navigation, reduced wait times and ease of movement.
Good environmental design, though, also fulfills a less obvious purpose: telling people exactly where to go and how to get there, while at the same time facilitating a sense of discovery and allowing room for adventure. Think IKEA or Disneyland — part of you wants to get lost and explore everything; the other half wants easy cues to get back to the main path.
Nowadays communities and neighborhoods are grappling with similar issues in wayfinding: establishing a sense of place, fostering connectivity and encouraging exploration. Neighborhoods, like modern brands, are starting to examine how they can be smarter but relevant, democratic not technocratic.
Suddenly, every inch and corner of public space is an opportunity to incorporate helpful wayfinding systems. Take the New York City Department of Sanitation’s latest challenge, for instance: redesigning the city’s metal trash cans. The 23,000 corner waste baskets peppered throughout the five boroughs aren’t aesthetically pleasing, leak out fluids, breed vermin and are too heavy to carry around even before they’re loaded with trash. More importantly, their traditional wire mesh design hasn’t changed since the 1930s.
Here’s a thought. Waste baskets are ubiquitous; big cities are fitted with one on every corner. What if the sanitation department collaborated with programmers and experience designers to embed every waste basket with wayfinding technology? The new dual-purpose waste basket could help solve the city’s trash problem and save the government valuable resources in urban planning.
In a field as complex and bureaucratic as infrastructural developments, the ideas are few and far between. Urban planners, architects and community leaders have to get creative about attracting and retaining people and businesses. They might as well begin with wayfinding.