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The Surprisingly Complex Art of Urban Wayfinding

Atlanta is no easy city for outsiders to navigate. It has seemingly three downtowns, plus three major interstates slicing through the core of the place, plus infinite maddeningly intertwined Peachtree streets. Los Angeles has neither an obvious street grid nor a comprehensive transit system that spans the entire city. Downtown Seattle actually has something like five street grids, all tilting on a slightly different axis. Washington, D.C., has those diagonal boulevards that befuddle tourists. And then there’s Venice – don’t even get visitors started on Venice.

In a word, these are all cities that could use some wayfinding.

A wonderfully designed place presents itself to tourists and residents alike with a kind of intuitive ease: the church is on the hill, the commerce is on the river, the grand boulevard leads straight to the main monument in town. Everywhere else, you need signs. And street banners, and pavement markings and public art and directional plaques and map kiosks.

Enter the urban wayfinding expert. This field – also known as environmental graphic design – fits a unique niche somewhere in between two- and three-dimensional design, between building and landscape architecture, between the small scale (street signs) and really large systems (whole cities).

“Architectural signage and wayfinding isn’t about building a nicely designed sign,” says Sue Labouvie, one such expert whom we tapped to explain the science of helping us find our way in the city. “It’s about the information content and the analysis of the space or place that you’re trying to move people through, and coming up with a strategy of how you make this big complex thing simple and understandable to the user.”

How do you clarify to people what a city is about, how they should move through it and where they can find all the really important stuff? Or, put another way: How does a city do this, all on its own, so that I don’t have to ask a knowledgeable-seeming stranger on the street for directions?

A lot of older European cities are intuitively laid out (OK, not Venice). You know how the story goes: Then we invented cars and stopped designing places for pedestrians, and for the last half-century cities have focused more on helping drivers speed through than directing people on foot from the art museum to the mall. More recently, cities all over the world have turned to expert wayfinders to embed non-intuitive streetscapes with the information we need to navigate them.

“When we have big cities,” says Labouvie, who is the president of Studio L’Image, “they become so complex we have to then impose something like signage and wayfinding to help people move through these cities and feel comfortable doing that because of the way that the city was designed.”

In 1995, Philadelphia launched one of the first pedestrian wayfinding programs, Walk!Philadelphia, which divided the city center into five districts (the convention center district, the historic district, the museum district, etc.), each with its own color-coded branding. The neighborhoods were then knit together by an extensive system of signs and street maps.

 

If you've been to downtown Philadelphia since, you may have appreciated how easy the convention center was to find. But you probably did not appreciate that someone had to design your path there.

“My parents never understood what it was that I did,” Labouvie laughs. “People know what advertising is. They know how to sell products. But understanding that there are best ways of moving through cities, that there are cues that will help you do that, people don’t understand that until it’s really pointed out.”

In that spirit, Labouvie sent us several other examples of smart city wayfinding that takes into account how people use information, how they travel (by bike, by foot, or by car), our many differing destinations and, in some cases, the fact that we don’t all speak the same language. The best systems, she says, comprehensively cover an entire city and not just its museum campus. New Orleans has one of these:

 

“A lot of times, I think when projects don’t work is when they’ve been designed from the standpoint of aesthetics, or decoration, or pure design,” she says, “without thinking about ‘who are your users?’ That’s the first question we ask on any project we do.”

In Oakland, those users may be transit commuters or native Chinese speakers:

Overt signage is also just one component of wayfinding. 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.

“Paris and a lot the main cities of the world have all sorts of visual cues that just get you where you want to be almost intuitively,” Labouvie says. “I do signage and wayfinding, but the less signs one needs the better."

It is entirely possible to put up way too many of these things, and to do them all wrong ("sign clutter," Labouvie calls it). Of course, there's also some joy in being lost in the city, in stumbling upon side streets and unexpected alleyways. That allure of wandering in the urban back country would be lost if every surface were plastered with directional cues: Hole-in-the-wall bar over here! Rare used bookstore 500 feet this way!

And so wayfinding is also about striking just the right balance between intuitive navigation and individual discovery.

“It’s like IKEAs,” Labouvie says. “Part of it is they want you to get lost, because then you can find out what you want, or what you don’t want, but then they always give you cues to getting back to the main path."

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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