Wayfinding: Definition and Where It Came From

Wayfinding: Definition and Where It Came From

People have always depended visual points of reference or landmarks to help them navigate by an ecosystem. Early humans followed hoof prints and trails in the grass to track animals for food. Native Americans would bend over young saplings tied to the ground as trail markers. You can nevertheless find large 800 year old oak trees in the South that have grown in a distinctive bowed shape. Most native civilizations used markings on cave walls and large rocks to tell a story or mark a path for passersby.

In the Northern hemisphere, moss growing on the North side of trees was used by early explorers to keep their bearing in unfamiliar territory. Trappers would break branches to point to where their traps were laid. Some archeologists think hoof prints or broken branches inspired the design of the first graphic arrow.

The oldest known maps are preserved on Babylonian clay tablets from about 2300 B.C. They included graphic signs that represented meaningful landmarks. Mountains, rock formations, rivers and coastlines served as points of reference, much like signs of today.

As humans evolved, and began building towns and cities, their wayfinding requirements grew. Archeologists have excavated evidence that civilizations from thousands of years ago had rare ways of instructing its citizens on how to get around.

As more people depended on written language to communicate, typographical signs were used to direct, clarify and warn. Written signs as wayfinding tools became important when mankind entered the age of mass transportation. The need to move large masses of people produced many challenges not only in streets and roads but within buildings and public gathering areas where business was conducted. The earliest man-made road signs were called milestones. They communicated distance or gave direction. The Romans placed stone columns throughout their empire giving the distance to Rome. During the Middle Ages, multidirectional signs were placed at intersections giving directions to cities and towns. The first modern road signs used on a wide extent were for riders of high bicycles in the late 1870s. These signs communicated more than distance or direction. They warned riders of hazards such as steep hills or sharp turns.

As our cities and towns turned into large metropolises, architects and city planners had to hire specialized designers and human behaviorists to develop environments where the populace could move in an organized way.

The Bauhaus Movement began in the early 1900’s. It had its origins from a school in Germany called Staatliches Bauhaus. The school was famous for its approach to design combining crafts and the fine arts. The German term Bauhaus, literally meant “house of construction” which stood for “School of Building”. This era not only effected architectural design, but also influenced the way architects were taught. Typography, color and composition became basic elements of the curriculum. ultimately graphic design was introduced to sustain spatial navigation by architectural environments.

In the mid 1970’s a new industry evolved dedicated to the study, development and implementation of wayfinding for highways, cities, institutions and retail environments. The development of Environmental Graphic Design (EGD) as a definitive discipline with its own specialized practitioners, accelerated wayfinding as an art and science that was executed by a strategic course of action. Since then, EGD has become a highly specialized design discipline with specific curriculum in many art schools and universities. If you search the Webster-Meriam dictionary you wont find a definition for the information Wayfinding. at the minimum, not however. It’s only a matter of time until someone realizes it has existed in our vocabulary for many years.

The information has been used by planners and architects for over five decades. Today, it is used by professionals who understand the importance of guiding people by built environments such as tourism consultants, graphic artists, sign fabricators and theme park developers.

Wikipedia offers a definition for Wayfinding as an organized system that “encompasses all of the ways in which people and animals orient themselves in physical space and navigate from place to place”.

In 1960, an urban planner named Kevin A. Lynch used the term “wayfinding” in his book Image of the City, to average “a consistent use and organization of definite sensory cues from the external ecosystem”. In those days, this was a term used mostly by architects and urban planners. More recently, wayfinding is a term to describe the use of signage and environmental graphic design as a method of public navigation.

I define wayfinding as the art and science of moving people by an ecosystem to a desired location using a number of visual cues including, but not limited to, guide signage, place identification, streetscaping, visual landmarks and various forms of environmental graphic design. “Environmental Graphic Design” is not something observed by the EPA or Green Peace. EGD is the design and application of visual communications in the build world. It utilizes the combined disciplines of graphic design, architecture, story telling, industrial design and scenery architecture.

The information wayfinding has become an integral part of urban planning and the creation of places that offer rare and noticable experiences to the public. Wayfinding improves circulation and directs visitor dollars where they have the most impact. Retail environments thrive when visitors can easily find their way there. Districts become popular destinations when a brand-supportive wayfinding system illuminates a clearly marked path for patrons.

Without wayfinding the world would be a disorganized mess. Tourists would be caught on endless road trips forever searching for their destinations, forced to persevere the continued “are we there however?” from their children. Hospitals would be filled with patients endlessly wandering the halls searching for exam rooms. Doctors wouldn’t be able to find golf courses. New York’s Time Square would be known as “Time Where?”. Instead of “Gateway to the West”, the St. Louis arch would be nothing more than an extremely short tunnel.

already in character, animals depend on wayfinding cues for navigation.

produces and wolves mark their territories with a scent to clarify their domain. Elephants use visual landmarks for guidance to watering holes and away from human populations. Ants follow paths left by scouts to find food or migrate to new colonies.

Animals use visual cues to guide them by their habitat the same way we use signs to guide us by ours. Many birds use the position of the sun. already when there is a thick cloud cover, starlings navigate this way. Some birds can travel at night using the sun. Scientists theorize that they either take their cue from where the sun sets on the horizon or rely on the polarization of its light. At night, some birds rely on stellar cues to know which way to migrate. Mountains, shorelines and rivers serve as basic navigation systems. For birds, this is especially easy from the air. Whales and migrating sharks traveling along the coastline use landmasses as wayfinding cues.

There are several levels of communication within a community wayfinding system. The first level brings visitors to your community by way of highway signage. Signs in these jurisdictions are managed by the Department of Transportation in the United States or the Ministry of Transportation in Canada. Unfortunately, there is little to no customizing allowed. The design of these signs is strictly controlled by the MUTCD (Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices). This is a document issued by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) of the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT). It specifies the standards by which traffic signs, road surface markings, and signals are designed and implemented. While you wont be able to add customized signs within their jurisdiction, DOT will try to adjust to reasonable requests for message changes on existing signs or the addition of new signs in places where travelers must exit or turn to get to a community. Along highways, in areas where they are permitted, billboards serve as the first opportunity where signage can be used to promote your community with customized graphics.

The second level includes vehicular guide signs that guide visitors to definable regions such as historical districts, concentrated retail areas, downtowns and keystone attractions. Once you get visitors to a specific vicinity, a third level of signs will guide visitors to specific destinations within that vicinity. The forth level guides drivers to parking opportunities. The longer someone stays in their car, the less time their wallet comes out of their pocket. Once visitors are on foot the fifth level, pedestrian guide signs and directories encourage them to analyze areas within walking distance.

There are many reasons why people come to a town or city. They might be vacationing families coming to enjoy an allurement, grandparents visiting grand children or business leaders coming to attend a conference. They all have one thing in shared- they are expecting a positive experience. A wayfinding system can help create a noticable sense of place if they are designed to convey a theme or sustain a regional brand.

Thematic signage can enhance a visitor’s experience. When a community brand is supported by the design of wayfinding signage, brand equity increases. If a community is packaged with well-designed branded graphics, a powerful emotional connection between visitors and your city is achieved. The more visual ambiance an area has, the less businesses will have to compete with low prices. People are willing to pay a premium in places that offer a positive experience. Desirable areas bring traffic. More traffic method more profits for businesses. As retail areas enhance, new businesses move in and tax revenues increase. Community pride will grow because of the improved ambiance produced by attractive signage. A strong retail sector method more jobs.

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