Wayfinding Your Way Around

Written by
Kyle Sherman
Published on
May 20, 2022 at 8:00:00 AM PDT May 20, 2022 at 8:00:00 AM PDTth, May 20, 2022 at 8:00:00 AM PDT

Have you ever used a sign, landmark, menu or audio to find your way around an office, museum, campus, park or even dining options?

If you have, then you are already acquainted with the spatial problem-solving method of wayfinding. Coined by American architect and urban planner Kevin Lynch in the 1960’s, wayfinding is a traditional design principle of navigation that helps visitors make their way around an unfamiliar place, getting to a desired destination with ease. Lynch calls it the “imageability” of a space, the way people visualize it using clues that help them get from point “A” to point “B,” such as landmarks, paths, edges, intersections and the signs that help to identify them.

The Science in the Design

There’s a science to creating an effective navigation route for any place people visit, as well as leading them through a storyline or narration, such as in a museum or an arboretum. Here are five principles of effective wayfinding:

1. Create a unique identity for each step.

Every place or turn in the road should function as a landmark, or a recognizable point of reference that a visitor can use to determine where they are and where they’re going- the first criterion for navigability. The landmark should also be memorable; with a special name, or a unique marking such as a sign.

2. Create well-structured paths that move through identifiable regions.

A well-structured path has a beginning, a middle and an end. A person should be able to determine direction, distance and progress to a destination. For instance, interstate highways have entrances and exits clearly marked by signs, with mile markers to indicate distance and progress to a particular destination. Moving through areas set apart by specific visual cues assist people with knowing where they are along the path. Another example is a museum, such as the Kennedy Museum aka The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, which uses well-structured wayfinding that starts with an introductory film, progresses through Kennedy’s Presidential campaign, administration, family life, assassination and legacy, and ends at the pavilion –moving forward through time.

3. Give visitors minimal choices for navigation.

Basically, encourage visitors to stay on the main course, even though detours, side-tours or opportunities for exploration can branch off, eventually returning to the original journey.

4. Use maps supported by signs.

One of the most valuable aids for navigation is a location map that gives an all-encompassing view of the space. Signs posted in places where a person needs to make a wayfinding decision –whether to continue along a current route or change direction- support the big picture of a map by identifying specific areas in an up close and personal way.

5. Show visitors what lies ahead.

A first-time visitor to a place may not know what to expect, moving in one direction as opposed to the other. Entice them to move forward with a preview of a new or unusual feature that’s waiting for them at the end of a hallway or up the stairs. It’s another way to spark interest in following a particular path to a destination.

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