Wayfinding is an area that is often misunderstood and poorly implemented. It is not just providing signs with written messages.

Patricia Salmi PhD, a research associate at the University of Minnesota, has been quoted as saying “community settings much accommodate an increasingly diverse population.”

Salmi added that universal access is an integral part of universal design, but one must go beyond simply addressing ‘physical’ barriers in the built environment and to identify the ‘hidden’ barriers to universal access.

When we develop wayfinding strategies, the Queensland Government Wayfinding design guidelines released in 2007 and the recently released Draft Australian Standard DR AS 1428.4.2:2015 Design for access and mobility – Wayfinding can be considered. In both references, there are 10 key wayfinding design principles presented:

  1. Analysis of the building or site for access points
  2. Division of the site into distinctive smaller parts, or zones of functional use
  3. Organising the smaller parts with a simple organisational principle
  4. Providing frequent directional cues throughout the space, particularly at decision points along journeys in both directions
  5. Decision points with a logical, rational and obvious design
  6. Designing and implementing a ‘naming protocol’ by choosing a theme for segregating places and spaces. Using names and symbols that can be easily remembered by users from diverse cultural backgrounds
  7. Using a sequential, logical, rational and consistent naming protocol
  8. Adopting a naming protocol with an alpha-numeric coding system
  9. Incorporating information in multiple languages, or incorporating pictograms when devising the naming protocol
  10. Ensuring the physical installation, placement and illumination of signs is suitable for all users

When considering these principles, there are many ideas, concepts and technologies available. Even back in 2007 the Queensland guidelines recognised that there were a number of emerging technologies that could be used as assistance devices for those who are blind or vision impaired, and these included:

  • Sonic guides
  • Mowat sensors and other personal sonic guides
  • Laser canes
  • Computer based mapping technologies
  • Audible or talking signage
  • Auditory beacons
  • Motion detectors, pressure detectors and infrared detectors
  • Barcode readers

However, it is surprising that the draft Wayfinding Standard AS 1428.4.2 doesn’t fully consider all available options. The draft AS 1428.4.2 has some obvious omissions, including prescriptive requirements for the wayfinding path to a point of exit. This important aspect is not addressed and fails to provide a suitable approach to address the needs of all occupants in wayfinding paths to points of exit. So too is the concept of extending the general luminous contrast requirements currently applied to general doorways to exit doors.

Technology is advancing at an incredible rate, and we now have the ability to provide dynamic wayfinding information through LED systems embedded directly into floor coverings or within exit sign light fittings for emergency purposes.

Dutch carpet company Desso has worked with Philips to create a ‘digital carpet’ called Luminous Carpets which utilise LED lights laid beneath a carpet with a specially designed translucent subsurface. It can then be pre-programmed to display electronic messages or wayfinding symbols or dynamically updated during emergencies to inform people of evacuation information or to an alternate exit route, in real time. Similar opportunities exist in the use of digital signage to provide wayfinding information.

Furthermore, smartphones will undoubtedly form a critical part of wayfinding solutions in the future. Smartphone apps now have the ability to connect directly to transmitting ‘beacons’ distributed around the built environment using Bluetooth technology. Though this beacon technology has been around for years, recent advancements in smartphone technology will change wayfinding forever. These apps can provide verbal location and navigation information through an earpiece and if the beacons were distributed around a city for example, a person using this technology would know exactly where they are, especially if GPS was incorporated.

The draft AS 1428.4.2 does mention ‘audible signs’ and defines these as those signs with an audible message which can be activated by remote, touch or proximity mechanism. However, the draft document doesn’t expand on their potential use any further.

In contrast, the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) includes the use of remote infrared audible signage (RIAS), which are wireless communication systems that employs permanently installed transmitters in conjunction with the use of hand-held receivers. People who are blind, vision impaired or unable to read printed information can activate the RIAS and receive spoken word messages to identify landmarks and provide wayfinding information transmitted directly to their receiver. The ADAAG states that RIAS can be used to provide wayfinding information that cannot be efficiently conveyed on Braille signs and recognises that emerging technologies such these using infrared transmitters and receivers provide greater accessibility in the transit environment than traditional Braille and raised letter signs.

The benefits of these emergency technologies should be highlighted in the draft Standard. To learn more, download the document from the SIA Global website. The closing date for public comment is February 15, 2016.

Cover image courtesy Luminous Carpets