Friday, February 20, 2009

Wayfinders for the 21st Century

As I said before on this blog, I’m one who likes to stick close to home, to familiar surroundings. Whenever I set off alone to a new destination, be it a store or a friend’s house, I always allow plenty of get-lost time. My inner compass is calibrated towards things like Truth and Beauty, not the more practical East and West. In fact, people are always suspect of any directions I give, because I still can’t identify left and right when I’m under pressure.

So, having established that I’m directionally challenged, I’m going to blog today about the service built in to modern architecture and engineering for people like me. It’s called Wayfinding.

Wayfinding used to mean the ability to get across vast, uncharted expanses by means of dead reckoning or reading waves or winds or other subtle clues. Now it defines a profession, a subset of architecture or engineering, that deals with providing both subtle and unsubtle clues so people can find their way on highways, in urban areas and inside buildings.

The blatant, in-your-face clues are signs. Signs need to be large enough to read from a distance, clearly stated, and using universally-accepted parlance. For instance Restroom is the accepted American term for toilet facilities. We’re close enough to the Canadian border that I hear the term washroom frequently. I know the terms are interchangeable, but there are a lot of people who don’t, and they might think that a sign that said “Washroom this way” was talking about a Laundromat. Likewise, for those who are tempted to call their place of business a ‘shoppe’ and identify restrooms as ‘comfort stations’ or ‘little boys’ and girls’ rooms’, they shouldn’t. They are not serving their customers well when they depart from uniform nomenclature.

The signs need to be clean and uncluttered as well, as their job is to convey information, not confuse. However, remembering that Wayfinding is a subset of architecture, it’s a joy to see how a gifted designer can make the sign aesthetically pleasing as well as clear and concise.

Color and design are ways of providing more subtle wayfinding clues. In places like hospitals, where there are corridors for the public that are separate from those used by patients and staff, the public corridors will have different flooring, wall finishes and decoration from the more utilitarian patient-staff hallways. As a visitor, you will know at once when you have wandered into the wrong space.

More and more, we’re seeing hieroglyphs in our signage. I love the one that denotes a bicycle lane. With a couple circles and straight lines, the image is conveyed, and language isn’t an issue.

As I surfed around the internet, looking for bits of information I could sprinkle around, making it look like I knew more than I do about wayfinding, I found a blog where a fellow was protesting the lack of directional signs at subway station exits. He was advocating guerilla wayfinding: that citizens take it in their own hands to do this. He offered a stencil that people could make and go out in the dead of night and spraypaint a compass on the sidewalk at the subway entrances.

Later, he updated with a picture (to the left) where he found that someone had actually done that. You can find his blog and this picture at

I have never lived in—never even visited—a town that had a subway, so I can’t identify with that. But I have had the experience of exiting a large store through a different door than the one I entered. The mental scramble to find something familiar is a wayfinder’s reason for living. And actually, in my surfing, I found that wayfinders do put different identifying objects each entrance—things like statues, paintings, tile patterns—so you will be able to recognize the door you came in. It’s up to the person making an entrance to note those things.

Now that I know they’re there for a purpose, I’ll pay attention.

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Mom said...

Tudy!! I love you Dear! How fun to get your Publication party invite in the mail today and find you all over the internet!! It is rainy and gloomy here in WA and I would LOVE to go to the party in AZ! As always, you have inspired me by just by your being (that word should be in italics). Am going to pull myself out of the dol-drums (is that a word or just mis-spelled?) and DO something! Your blog is so funny and so true for those of us who are easily distracted and too often find ourselves lost! I can't wait to read your new book!

I'll be checking in often!
Mary Strebel

Liz Adair said...

Hey, Mary, I hope you read this reply, because I'll never make it to the post office with a new letter for you. I'm postally challenged. So nice to hear from you! Sounds like you're well. Sounds like you're you, and that makes me smile.