The term wayfinding means more than getting around by following signs and maps. Harding describes it in a wider context. “Wayfinding encompasses all the ways in which people orient themselves in physical space from place to place,” he says. “It can be described as the process of using spatial and environmental information to find our way in a built environment. It’s not considered a separate activity from traditional signage design, but a more inclusive way of assessing all the environmental issues that affect our ability to find our way.”
As anyone who has travelled by air knows, it can be disorienting and stressful to arrive in an unfamiliar airport and quickly discern how to find your connecting flight, luggage, or a rental car. Large wayfinding programs can have more than 10,000 signs and environmental cues, so it’s easy to understand how valuable a well-thought-out strategy and implementation guide can be — not only in terms of the impact on travelers, but also on those expected to plan, manage and maintain the systems.
Strategy First, Implementation Later
The GS&P team’s job was not only to create a new guide that airports worldwide could reference and adapt to their specific airport environments, but to do so in a way that pointed users to understand and develop an overall strategy. “The need for good wayfinding at airports is universal,” Harding says. “Previous to this project, there was information out there, but nothing that targeted the specific needs of the airport in a holistic way. The information that was available was fragmented and often out-of-date, or if it told you what to do, it didn’t tell you why. If you don’t understand the ‘why’ behind wayfinding design, you will not be able to properly diagnose the true extent of the wayfinding problem, much less develop holistic wayfinding solutions. Until an airport understands the ‘why’ part of wayfinding, their sign system will lack the critical components of connectivity, continuity and consistency, which translates into decreased customer satisfaction.”
To this end, the GS&P team included what was essentially streamlined training material for guidebook users on how to discern wayfinding strategy and logic. Guidebook users are instructed to analyze and review all airport signage in the context of an airport’s overall environment, and work directly with senior management to develop a plan. According to Harding,
involvement from the top is too often overlooked.
“When passengers have an unpleasant experience at an airport, whether it’s with finding parking, getting to ground transportation or getting lost in the terminal, they spend less money. No business wants to cause their customers distress, so it’s crucial to get buy-in from senior management, because most wayfinding programs fall under an airport’s capital
The guidebook also coaches users to adopt a philosophy that heightens the importance of wayfinding and places priorities on competing elements. Users are encouraged to consider important questions, such as: Is this sign of primary importance or is it more secondary? Is an advertisement more important that a navigating element at a specific location? Over time, Harding hopes the guidebook will help shift the basic philosophy of how wayfinding programs
“The philosophy drives home the fact that wayfinding needs to take a higher priority than other types of visual information. When you understand the logic behind your wayfinding, and the key concepts that drive it, then you can solve essential problems. Just knowing how to prioritize all the signs in the airport environment is a huge step in creating an effective program,” Harding says.
Organizing Information for Complex Environments
Since much of the content of the ACRP guidebook deals with abstract concepts such as strategy and logic, the GS&P team needed to find ways to make the information digestible, clear and relevant. Much of the challenge was organizational, but the team also sought insight directly from their intended readers.
They decided to meet for a half-day workshop with a cadre of professionals from the Airport Sign Managers Network. Participants were presented with a proposed table of contents and asked to rank subject areas in order of importance.
“During our research phase, we tried to involve the broadest range of people possible, and then we made sure to stay on top of the communication pipeline,” Harding says. “The workshop was extremely helpful. We knew we really needed to get input from airport managers and design professionals about the content of the guidebook. We wanted to make sure every voice was heard and accounted for.”
After learning more about the audience’s key concerns, Harding’s team prioritized the information in an optimal way for guidebook users along four main airport areas of focus: the terminal, parking areas, roadways, and curbside and ground transportation zones. Information was supplemented with professional insights, data, photographs, information graphics, training suggestions and case studies throughout.
The case studies, a mix of team experience and research conducted with airports around the world, provide specific examples of wayfinding successes and breakdowns. For example, one study showed how an almost universally accepted symbol for rental cars is not universally understood by passengers. The guidebook showed other symbols that test subjects found more effective, proving the point that even detailed sign elements — symbols, colors and typography — play important roles in customer understanding.
There was near-immediate positive reaction to the ACRP Wayfinding Guidebook after it was published in August 2011, and Harding hears from many airport professionals about how they are applying information from the guidebook. Some are in the process of reconfiguring and revisioning their entire wayfinding strategy, while others are working on specific problem areas.
“Airports are configured differently with a varying range of wayfinding challenges. The solutions are not necessarily easily deciphered, and that was part of the problem,” Harding says. “The fact that so many professionals find the guide valuable is extremely gratifying because the point of the guidebook is that there are no ‘one size fits all’ solutions to airport wayfinding.”
An unexpected surprise — and one of the most prominent proofs of the project’s effectiveness and reach — is the amount of feedback that flowed in from airports all over the world. “I expected to hear from airports within North America, but I really wasn’t expecting it to have such a global reach,” Harding says. “But when you start to hear from places like India and Italy, you feel like you’re really having an impact. It certainly tells you that there was a need for it.”