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An Homage to Wayfinding

Jan 31, 2015
by Zhaleh Moulaei, Intern Architect AIBC, VIA Architecture Vancouver


Have you ever experienced the excitement that comes from discovering something that used to be almost invisible to you? Then you start to see it everywhere and contemplate its importance?

That’s my story with wayfinding. A TransLink wayfinding project that I began working on at VIA revealed a whole new world to me: the world of wayfinding.

Now, when I think about connected communities and walkable, transit-oriented cities, the picture is not complete, or is rather dysfunctional without wayfinding elements in it– those small organs that make the whole system work the way it is designed to work. We can design cities that are perfectly connected with different modes of transit, and yet, if we fail to assist users in finding their way from Point A to Point B, our system has failed. This layer of information architecture is as important as the orchestration of the rest of the system.

Wayfinding Through Time

For thousands of years, humans have needed to be directed on where they need to go. The concept hasn’t changed, only the techniques and the materials used. As we became more civilized and our cities more complicated, so did the need for more sophisticated ways of directing people.

In 1960, urban planner and teacher Kevin Lynch coined the term wayfinding in his landmark book, The Image of the City:

“To become completely lost is perhaps a rather rare experience for most people in the modern city. We are supported by the presence of others and by special way-finding devices: maps, street numbers, route signs, bus placards. But let the mishap of disorientation occur, and the sense of anxiety and even terror that accompanies it reveals to us how closely it is linked to our sense of balance and well-being. The very word “lost” in our language means much more than simple geographical uncertainty; it carries overtones of utter disaster”

Twenty years later Romedi Passini wrote Wayfinding in Architecture. In 1992 he coauthored Wayfinding: People, Signs, and Architecture with Paul Arthur. Edward Tufte’s Visual Display of Quantitative Information (1983) and Richard Saul Wurman’s Information Architects (1996) have each greatly influenced the field of wayfinding. Over time, Environmental Graphic Design (EGD) became the preferred umbrella term to describe any communications intended for spatial application, ranging from wayfinding sign programs to branded spaces, exhibitions, and even public art. During the past forty years, as the EGD profession matured, the range of wayfinding projects rapidly expanded. Today, almost every type of public space and most private complexes need a wayfinding scheme. Lynch writes:

 “Despite a few remaining puzzles, it now seems unlikely that there is any mystic “instinct” of wayfinding. Rather there is a consistent use and organization of definite sensory cues from the external environment”

His research found that people form individually-customized mental maps from the physical world, often based around five elements: paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks to navigate through space. Successful cities have enough of these elements to help people create their own mental map to find their way. Time is an important element in creating one’s mental maps. In cities that are becoming more global, and where people move in and out at such a fast pace, there might not be enough time to create these individually-customized mental maps. We need other tools on which to rely.

Beginning two decades ago, some cities started programs to improve their wayfinding signage systems, and therefore to encourage and support walkability for both residents and tourists. Among these cities are London (Legible London project), Glasgow, Bristol, Philadelphia, New York City, Sydney, Melbourne, Helsinki, Edmonton, and Vancouver.

Wayfinding in Vancouver BC

In anticipation of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games, the City of Vancouver began to install pedestrian wayfinding map stands to provide walking information for residents and visitors looking for Olympic venues and other destinations. Recognizing the instrumental role of pedestrian wayfinding to promote walkability throughout the City, a pilot wayfinding study was launched in 2012 in partnership with TransLink, the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA), and the City to test the performance of an integrated system. The pilot focused on updating the existing map stands’ content to provide more consistent, legible, and up-to-date map content that would help pedestrians better understand their environment. The study showed success in increasing pedestrian trips and the City decided to implement the new system city-wide.

To support a seamless wayfinding system, TransLink also started developing a new wayfinding strategy in 2008. Prior to the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, TransLink began installing wayfinding prototype products at select SkyTrain stations in Vancouver and Richmond, such as the new “T” sign. Since then, TransLink wayfinding strategy has expanded to include journey planning information walls providing content like “Metro Vancouver Transit,” “Buses From Here,” and “Walking From Here” maps to support the City’s updated wayfinding effort.

New TransLink “T” Signs

Jeff Deby, Wayfinding Planner at TransLink, talks about some of the new ideas in the new TransLink wayfinding strategy in his Pecha Kucha, available at this link.

New strategies include:

  •  Having a consistent language of signage among stations to create an identity
  • Being predictable: consistency in signage locations and contents create a sense of confidence in users to predict where to look for what information even in a new station
  • Disclosing information progressively: show the information only at the point where it is needed
  • Providing just the right amount of information on each piece of signage
  • Using easy to understand symbols and graphics: users do not have much time to solve a puzzle

An Impressive Example

Harry Beck’s precedent-setting map design for the London Underground, issued in 1933, is a good example of the implementation of the last two strategies. Before him, the various underground lines had been laid out geographically, often superimposed over the roadway of a city map. This meant that the centrally-located stations were shown very close together and the out of town stations spaced far apart.

London Underground Map of 1908, Image credit: Wikipedia

Beck believed that passengers riding the Underground were not concerned with geographical accuracy, and were more interested in exchanges and how to get from one station to another. He came up with a map where the spaghetti of routes were organized into a system of lines drawn at consistent angles with stations that were more or less equally-spaced.

Beck’s London Underground Map of 1933. In 1997, Beck’s importance was posthumously recognized, and today, the statement “This diagram is an evolution of the original design conceived in 1931 by Harry Beck” is printed on every London Underground map. Image credit: Wikipedia

Future of Wayfinding

Seattle Public Library, Central Branch

Seattle Public Library, Central Branch

One may argue that traditional wayfinding tools – static maps, signage, etc.–  will soon become useless in an age where everyone has all the information they may need in their smart gadgets. True–  we are living in the Age of Information, and the electronic devices we use are way smarter than our built environment, so more research is needed to envision smarter wayfinding tools–  but I would argue there is still so much room both to improve the wayfinding tools that we have and to better integrate them into our built environment. Wayfinding provides us with information, and this information can be better integrated into our spaces. I can think of the Seattle Public Library, which is taking steps toward moving in that direction, but our built spaces in general are not designed with information as a parameter to design around.

Wayfinding, especially in projects where moving users from Point A to Point B is one of the main goals– as in transit infrastructure projects–  should be one of the parameters of the design problem from the onset. This would guarantee a seamless, holistic infrastructure at the end; one that works well. Wayfinding dissolves in such projects. As the saying goes: “Good wayfinding strategies tend to remain invisible to our eyes. It is only when wayfinding strategies are not good enough that we notice their existence.”


Lynch, Kevin. The Image of the City. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1960.
2014 Greenest City Scholars Program. (2014). Moving Forward, Opportunities for Vancouver’s Digital Wayfinding Map. SCARP, UBC, Vancouver: Robert W. White.