What is Wayfinding

The best wayfinding systems do much more than simply guide people to their destinations. They make locals and visitors feel at home and welcome.

Even though signage plays an important role in wayfinding, the process doesn’t rely exclusively on signs. The term “wayfinding” was first used in 1960 by architect Kevin Lynch in The Image of the City, where he referred to maps, street numbers, directional signs and other elements as “way-finding” devices. This narrow description may explain the current misunderstanding that wayfinding is essentially the same as “signage.”

The two terms are not synonymous. Signmakers deal with designing, fabricating and installing signs. However, wayfinding used to navigate unfamiliar environments, doesn’t rely exclusively on signs.

This distinction gained acceptance in the early ’70s when researchers discovered that, to understand how people find their way, they first need to understand the underlying process. Architect and environmental
psychologist Romedi Passini articulated spatial problem-solving in his books, Wayfinding in Architecture and Wayfinding, People, Signs and Architecture, which he co-authored with wayfinding planner Paul
Arthur.

Passini and Arthur described wayfinding as a two-stage process during which people must solve a wide variety of problems in architectural and urban spaces that involve both “decision making” (formulating an action plan) and “decision executing” (implementing the plan).

People who find themselves in unfamiliar environments need to know where they actually are in the complex, the layout of the complex, and the location of their destination in order to formulate their action plans. En route to their chosen destinations, people are helped or hindered prior to their visit, the building’s architecture and signage. The physical environment, including positive effect in how users perceive the wayfinding system–if it seems easy to use or not.

Faulty sign design can cause navigation problems in unfamiliar environments. Some signs lack “conspicuity,” or visibility, because lettering lacks legibility when viewed from a distance. Others contain
inaccurate, ambiguous or unfamiliar messages; many are obscured by obstructions or contain reflective surfaces, which hinder comprehension. Consequently, many people don’t read signs–often it’s easier to
ask for directions.

Because wayfinding problems aren’t confined to signs alone, they typically can’t be solved by adding more signs. Instead, such problems can be unraveled by designing an environment that identifies logical
traffic patterns that enable people to move easily from one spot to another without confusion. Signs cannot be a panacea for poor architecture and illogical space planning.

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