Threats and opportunities for wayfinding systems
European Sign Magazine, no 2, 1993, pag. 18-24
Last editorial changes: December 2009.
Dr. Leonard Verhoef,
applied cognitive psychologist.
For designing complex things.
Not a designer.
Leonard Verhoef, theoretical and practical background. From an experimental cognitive psychologist to a designer of simple and complex daily life systems in a technical future.
With click to: CV.
Threat 1: Artists
|Art can be a threat to wayfinding. For designing wayfinding systems knowledge is needed on design, legibility, contrast, functional order, cognitive psychology, maintenance and protection against vandalism.These skills are not typical for artists. In general they should not design a wayfinding system. A typical error of artists designing wayfinding systems is not taking account of functional fixedness. I.e. the users only observe the primary function of an object. For someone who is lost, a work of art is a work of art and not a signpost. See Figure 1.|
|Figure 1. Functional fixedness confuses.|
The window in this building has two functions:
2) under part of the character i
The particle De (Dutch for the) has two functions:
2) upper part of the character i
The aesthetic and creative value of this design might be more important than the confusion of passengers not understanding this is a busstation of the company De lijn.
Source: Busstation Leuven, Belgium
When to take the door left and when to take the door at the right?
The answer is on the floor and appropriate of this Dutch tango school.
The opportunity is that conspicuous objects visible from several directions can assist in rapid orientation for novice users. They will help to recall locations and directions, especially when the environment is regular and symmetric. Figure 2 gives an example.
The artistic design of this underground station reduces the number of passengers confusing stations.
Source: Underground station Stockholm 1985
Threat 2: Floor plans and maps
Floor plans have traditionally been rather popular.||Unfortunately, to users floor plans are often useless, particularly within buildings. We have some good arguments for this bold claim.|
They can have a very great aesthetic value and many people enjoy planning and daydreaming using maps. For closed systems, where all routes and destinations are known, one should rather use many signs than few floor plans.
Threat 3: Floor signing
|Some managements are tempted to have coloured route stripes on the floor. This method also is not necessarily a threat to makers of wayfinding systems. This method has mainly practical drawbacks. For each move the floor covering must also be replaced. Besides, the number of available colours is usually less than the number of destinations. In ergonomic terms colour is not recommended. If a user wishes to go to the exit, he should look for the exit ad not for a green stripe. Besides, it is quite possible that users do not notice or understand that they have to follow the green stripe. Even if that is not the case, there is a fair chance that they forget the colour coding. All this information imposes a load on working memory.||Moreover, one should only give indications at decision points, such as corners. One should also wonder whether the interior should be sacrificed to wayfinding. Wayfinding on floors is actually only usefully for blind persons. Unfortunately for the makers, visual techniques, such as sign boards cannot be used and instead tactile aids should be employed, for example through rubber or ridged tiles. In ergonomic terms that is a good solution, as ridges do not obstruct the visual impression of sighted persons. They do, however, have physical disadvantages, as cleaning a ridged floor is more difficult than cleaning a smooth floor.||
Yet there is an opportunity here. In addition to presenting information to blind persons on the floor, braille sign can also be used, or a loudspeaker which, upon request, announces the text of the sign (see the figures ont this page). Makers of wayfinding systems should not underestimate this new market. In the USA a Disability Act was introduces. This should assist handicapped persons to live a normal life. It means that, for example, wayfinding systems must be in stalled. As in the USA good wayfinding for sighted persons is not compulsory or even usual, we expect that in the future American sighted people will ask blind Americans where to go.
Threat 4: Architects
|A wayfinding system shows where the architect has failed. If the architect placed the cloakroom near the entrance, signs will not be needed. Fortunately for the maker of wayfinding systems, the threat posed by architects is not too bad. Architects are more interested in winning prizes and making special architectural constructions than designs userfriendly buildings. Of course, some wayfinding signs always will be needed. Userfriendly means also that functions should be visible. An open staircase that can be seen from all sides does not need signs.||However, functions cannot always be made visible. Toilets, for examples, may never be open to view. And visibility also is reduced through increasing integration. An obvious entrance is often not present when in a building shopping centres, offices and public transport facilities are integrated. Besides, the only difference between a shopping centre and today's public transport terminal is that the terminal has a few holes behind which the trains or aircrafts are. Even the ubiquitous check-in counters with long rows of waiting people will disappear and be replaced by machines, subscription and decentralized check-in facilities. Financial considerations also result in invisibility. Not every station architect can show the underground trains through glazed floors and mezzanines.||
The best is an architecture that requires few signs.
Threat 5: Many destinations
|Directories with many destinations are inconvenient, it is often said. This threat can also be quite easily converted into an opportunity. Searching for a destination that is not on the list is even more inconvenient. The length of the list is not a problem for the user. The problem is the wrong structure and not presenting entries is the real problem. An alphabetic list that clearly shows that the listing is alphabetic, helps the user find his information quickly, because he can ignore much. Nobody will start looking at the beginning of a telephone directory for the number of Mr. Zimbabwe.||
More destination means more to be sold: more signs and a larger directory.
Threat 6: Complexity
Fifty years ago the few air travelers had few problems. They went to the airport and got on the plane standing there waiting for them. Nowadays an airport is like a town in itself, from which numerous aircrafts depart.|
In the first place there is an increasing differentiation. In the past one could refer to 'the aircraft. Nowadays differentiating between local and international flights is not enough any more. Through internationalizations the usefulness of texts in the local language also decreases. Managements are inclined to tackle these developments blindly with modern techniques, such as computers and dynamic electronic information panels. Our preference is rather for modern psycho-techniques. An examples of that technique is what we call combicons (see the figures 3) and graphical languages. An icon for a handicapped person can be combined with a lift icon and a toilet icon. An information icon can be combined with those for train tourist office or hotel. The user sees two elements which they recognize and they themselves can attach the added value which the designer had in mind.
Increasing complexity of information does not pose a threat, but rather an opportunity to wayfinding systems. When looking for a solution management will be guided by common sense and personal experience. The company that makes the wayfinding systems will approach the problem in a more professional manner, making use of the information that has been build up through the years. For example, by having developed elements for a graphical sign language that allow for efficient and comprehensible communication of complex and variable information.
The nose has two functions:
- a decorative one, the nose of pinokio
- indicating the direction
Threat 7: Computers
|Computers are a serious threat to wayfinding systems. Columns with keyboards, displays and printers are very popular with today's management. As it is well known, computers are much more difficult to use and unreliable than a sign carrying text. In terms of road signs it should e noted that a sign can be read easily from a motorcar, but a display often cannot be read easily even when one is standing right in front of it. Frequently the computerized information pillars are sponsored. That reduces costs, but the problems the user suffers are increasing apace. If ever such systems become useful, it might already be too late. The negative experience will lead to users ignoring those things.||
Computers do not stand a chance against traditional wayfinding systems.
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Leonard Verhoef, theoretical and practical background. From an experimental coginitive psychologist to a designer of simple and complex daily life systems in a technical future.
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