Saturday, February 9, 2013


What people are losing in their reliance on GPS is their wayfinding ability. Wayfinding is one of those terms that morphs to fit different situation, but it always includes helping people develop a sense of place and their relationship to it.

Originally, wayfinding referred to ocean navigation without compass, sextant, or satellites. The Polynesians used the sun and stars, the ocean swells and the color of the water, the presence of birds and animals, and the weather to travel clear across the Pacific Ocean from one island chain to another. They even built maps of sticks and shells to pass on this information to others.

In 1960, urban designer Kevin Lynch used the term to refer to environmental legibility, "the elements of the built environment that allow us to navigate successfully through complex spaces like cities and towns." From there, wayfinding became the art of helping people move through their environment, especially cities.
Wayfinding means knowing where you are, knowing your destination, following the best route, recognizing your destination, and finding your way back.  When people cannot do these things, outside or inside, we say they are disoriented. 
Signs and maps are part of this, but good wayfinding cues go far beyond that.
Sidewalks tell pedestrians where they’re welcome. Public art draws people down a boulevard. Street lighting indicates where it’s safe to bike at night. Street banners tie together an entire community – and inform passing cars when they’ve left it. Many of these little nudges speak to us on an almost subconscious level.
Subway maps make it clear how to get from one stop to another. Mountains, lakes, and rivers make it easy to orient in a place, an effect that can be (partly) replicated with plazas, unusual buildings, and large public art. Chinese dragons on lamp posts tell you that you are in Chinatown. There is a surprisingly detailed list of things to think about when you are setting up wayfinding cues.

By analogy, wayfinding in video games helps players know where they are in the virtual world. In website design, it helps visitors to a site know where they are in relationship to the entire site, something that is especially helpful if they come to the site from a search engine without any of the usual visual clues that would tell them how the site is laid out - much like using GPS to find a restaurant without paying any attention to where you are in the city.

Wayfinding is an old part of the human mind, early used gathering plants every year or moving goats to better pasture. As our cities have gotten larger and more complex, people have found ways to augment our ability to find our way. Wayfinding has even become important in the virtual world. It will be interesting to see what affect GPS has on our ability to comprehend and navigate our world.


Anonymous said...

Very thought provoking piece. Great designers also look for ways to answer the needs of less typical populations seeking to find their way. How does a non-visual person navigate this landscape? How does a person on wheels navigate this landscape? How does a child navigate? People of diverse abilities use site markers differently.

The Magpie said...

Good questions. Some of the sources I looked at use examples that recognize different primary languages, or show graphics that don't require reading. At least one example was the bumpy strips at a crosswalk. But I suspect that the art of helping people find their way is partly in addressing exactly these concerns.

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