Way finding is often associated with the limited scope of signage design and the placement of signs to assist people with their navigation through a building or the larger site.
Signage is, of course, a crucial component in way finding.
Way finding should, however, also be viewed as a far broader concept incorporating a wider range of building elements and experiences within the built environment. Way finding is essentially about communication, and communication in the built environment does not necessarily need to be graphic; it can be architectural, tactile or audible, and in some instances olfactory.
People use a vast amount of cues to assist with orienting themselves to a space and to gain a sense of direction. Some examples include the form and shape of buildings and the finishes associated with each of them; the location of landmark features; internal finishes defining rooms and walkways within a building; the texture of walkways, floor finishes and standalone furniture; the noise associated with various spaces within a building; or smells associated with various spaces (e.g. coffee shop, cafeteria).
These provide a myriad of cues which, when coupled with a person’s prior experience of the building, assist in creating a more meaningful whole.
Attending to these cues more thoroughly and ensuring that they are provided in a consistent, uniform and strategic manner are key to developing a design which will be more usable to a broader range of people.
Landmark features such as statues and sculptures, or scented plants can provide a strong cue at points where several paths converge and decisions need to be made.
Architectural features such as canopies and alcoves can effectively highlight entry points to buildings. Locating these entry points so that they can be clearly seen from an associated car park, bus stop, taxi rank or pedestrian footpath assists people in gaining access to a building.
Likewise, ensuring connecting pathways and means of vertical transport are also clearly viewable from entrances provides a perceptible continuation in a person’s journey through a site.
Signage should complement the care taken in the design and should not constitute the main means of directing people as it relies on a limited set of skills (i.e. good visual acuity and perception, as well as strong literacy and language skills).
The obstacles in using signage alone for people with vision impairments and intellectual disabilities are obvious, but other large groups of people in the community also experience difficulty with this – a list that can include the elderly, people with a non-English speaking background and young children, among others.
The incorporation of pictograms and symbols as well as tactile and Braille features assist in making signage more accessible, and its location and the information communicated is just as important.
The height of signage and consistent placement are critical for tactile reading and in enabling people to anticipate where signage is to be provided and easily locate it when necessary. Using contrasting surfaces through both colour and texture further assist in locating signs. These principles should also extend to the elements on the sign itself.
“You are here” maps located at entries and crucial decision making points assist people with finding where they are located within the site or building and to subsequently problem solve an appropriate route to their destination. Directory boards listing spaces, functions and facilities on each floor proximal to the lifts and stairs provide vital information required to reach a destination.
Incorporating colour coding of spaces across all signage and incorporating it with finishes within the space itself provides a continuum of information which is more easily perceived by most people.
Also crucial in developing effective way finding solutions is the consideration of mobility and how people are able to travel safely through a site.
A whole host of strategies can be incorporated to assist with this, with many of these well documented across a number of Australian Standards.
Strategies may include locating and designing paths of travel which provide appropriate gradients and landings for people to rest at suitable distances; providing well designed handrails at all stairs and ramps; providing ramped walkways in lieu of stairs to allow for universal and safe access; providing contrasting finishes to define paths or incorporating suitable barriers and landscaping to achieve this; and providing contrasting graphics to glazed entry doors to assist detection.