Wayfinders enable us to…yes… find our way.
Hired by the people who design airports, hospitals, museums–any place we have to navigate–wayfinders use architecture, signage, lighting, and color to take us from the entrance to the elevator or from Terminal A to Terminal D. Through floor panels, counter shapes, signs, and signals that we rarely notice, they nudge us toward our destination.
When wayfinders do their job well, they are rather invisible.
At airports, wayfinders create paths for people through counter and floor design. Or, in a mostly monochromatic space, they use one color that pops to identify a crucial service. Because airport management assumes that travelers will be stressed, they use design to calm us. The hope is that the calmer we become, the more we will shop. The wayfinding firm that worked at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport said yellow was the sign color that worked best.
Wayfinders also care about a building’s decision points like the bottom of an escalator. They have to consider if numbers, letters, or graphics will help us remember where we parked. And, because fonts affect close up and faraway legibility, simplicity matters. After all, you don’t want an “a” to look like an “o” from a distance.
You can see why Helvetica’s clean lines make it a popular public space font:
Fundamentally, wayfinders have to know what works where. If several signs say the same thing in different languages, they need to decide placement priorities. They have to figure out whether to say toilet or restroom and (for gate) salida or puerta. With a pictogram, an Italian airport group requested images with shorter skirts. And, when illustrating oversize baggage, in Denver the image would be skis while in the Netherlands, a bicycle.
Our Bottom Line: Behavioral Economics
Like behavioral economics, wayfinding is at the intersection of psychology and economics. To give us the nudges we need to get where we are going, wayfinders have to understand how we think. But also, their goal is economic. They are enhancing the efficiency of our physical capital.
My sources and more: Yesterday’s NY Times reminded me we should return to wayfinding, this older WSJ article cited timeless wayfinding issues, and The Atlantic had some details. But, as always, the best place to go for design insight is 99% Invisible.