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Wayfinding: A burgeoning art form


In the 1960s, urban planning experts like Jane Jacobs and Kevin Lynch began to notice that cities with better signage were wealthier, safer, and less polluted. Was it possible, they wondered, that cities whose residents have better mental maps of their surroundings live happier and more productive lives? Kevin Lynch, a professor at MIT, studied environmental psychology for years, formulating a set of mental markers that people use to navigate their way around difficult terrain: markers like paths, edges, nodes, landmarks, and districts. He called the art of urban navigation "wayfinding."

But a building doesn't have to be the Louvre or the Pentagon to be tough to navigate, and people in enclosed settings make use of wayfinding, too. Buildings like malls, hospitals, offices and parking garages can present unsuspecting visitors with time-consuming challenges – especially in an emergency.

Kevin Lynch and his successors have identified a few key principles for helping people find their way around confusing buildings.
  • Signage does its best work at decision points where visitors have to choose one of two or more directions.
  • Arrows and other directional signs are helpful, but too much information can dull their impact. Only include as much information as visitors might need.
  • Humans are hardwired to identify and remember general characteristics of their surroundings, so using different visual identities (like paint color) can make a building more navigable.
  • Give visitors a "wienie" to walk toward. (In wayfinding parlance adapted from Walt Disney, a "wienie" is a goal, stand-out visual feature or landmark that encourages passersby in a particular direction.) In the case of directional signs, an arrow with a label is more meaningful if passersby can see the labeled goal the arrow points toward.
At the same time as visual cues like color or distinctive objects (like an unusual plant) can help with navigation, a distinctive entrance sign can create a visual identity too, as well as filtering traffic down to only people who are supposed to be there (think "EMPLOYEES ONLY").
Shelter Area Emergency Sign
17 miles of hallway, 3,705,793 square feet of office space, 284 bathrooms, 131 stairways… but the number of exit signs is classified

Exit Signs
Signs that separate pedestrians into groups help to reduce crowding and confusion.