UK design needs to build on its strengths in wayfinding

Lynda Relph-Knight

Reports that Applied Information Group has won the job to sort out wayfinding for the Canadian city of Vancouver bode well not just for the London group, but for UK design as a whole.

Wayfinding projects in emerging nations such the United Arab Emirates, where global groups like The Brand Union and Landor Associates dominate, suggest that British designers lead the way, literally, in a relatively new area of design. Building arguably on the motorway signage system developed by Margaret Calvert and the late Jock Kinneir, this should help the UK to combat international competition through design.

Wayfinding works best when you don’t notice it. It needs to be effortless for someone trying to get from A to B, their main concern probably being what they are going to do when they arrive rather than the journey in between.

There needs to be consistency, whether in a city, an airport, a leisure complex or a building. Essentially, it is about ‘customer interface’ and incorporates all aspects of design – 3D, 2D, digital and sensory. There can be language issues and any pictograms need to carry a universal message.

Much effort has gone into wayfinding over the past few years, not least in transport hubs, but it doesn’t always work. Take big airports like London Heathrow, where mandatory safety signs and directional pointers present a sometimes confusing mass of options to the visitor. Or try to find your way from the street into the new St Pancras International Eurostar terminal in London without asking a member of the station staff.

Yet the impact, particularly on overseas visitors, can be enormous. This was recognised by Tony Blair in the late 1990s, the days of Cool Britannia, when, as Prime Minister, he pledged to improve the ‘gateways’ into Britain to make the experience a good one for visitors.

The recognition is there. All we need now is to hone the creative skills required to address wayfinding issues. There are too few specialist groups equipped to take on the task.

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  • Amanda Bellamy November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Some ergonomists specialise in wayfinding issues. For example, the Ergonomics Consultancy Human Engineering carried out a study for Manchester Airport a few years ago, with the aim of gaining an in-depth understanding of what passengers needed to know in order to proceed to the next stage. This took into account how much information passengers could take in without feeling overloaded. Ergonomists working in this area use their knowledge of psychology and design to put the needs of passengers centre stage. It is such a pity that not enough people know that this expertise is out there.

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