Design Corner: Finding Direction

By Curt Moody

Everyone has experienced the frustration of walking into an unfamiliar building and, stymied by the lack of identifiable guideposts, finding that they are at a loss as to where and how to proceed. Visitors cannot expect to find their way without basic and essential "wayfinding" tools.

By definition, wayfinding comprises signs, maps and other graphic or audible methods used to convey location and directions to all who are present in or traveling through an area. While visible in some form or another in all types of facilities, wayfinding tools can take on an added dimension in civic, institutional and collegiate settings where specific aspects of image and identity can be incorporated to add richness to basic visual cues and woven into the basic fabric of the facility itself.

Wayfinding in an institutional setting serves a two-fold purpose. At its most basic, it ensures that an ever-changing group of users and visitors are able to easily navigate the facility and use all of its amenities without confusion. At the same time, the graphic, visual impact of wayfinding keys make them a perfect vehicle for defining and projecting a specific vision of institutional identity.

'X' Marks the Spot

Notable architectural elements, such as over-scaled entries, richly appointed lobbies or grand stairs have long been parts of a traditional wayfinding scheme, providing both memorable and associative cues to aid a visitor in locating himself within and navigating through a facility. However, with a growing tendency toward multi-functioning and non-traditional building forms, the traditional methods of memory and association are no longer enough. Increasingly, visual keys are being incorporated into the design of a facility to provide additional wayfinding support. These keys may be explicit (an orchestrated program of signs, symbols and coded colors) or implicit (conscious manipulation of the architecture itself—elements, details, colors and patterns to help clarify paths and spatial sequence). Quite often, wayfinding is accomplished through a combined approach where the clarity of the architectural cues is reinforced through a well-crafted overlay of signs and symbols.

Architecture itself has a strong symbolic component. Any community or institution considering the erection of a new facility will certainly be quite concerned with its power to portray a specific image and identity. A well-conceived and well-crafted facility can be used as a unique recruiting tool both in the amenities it provides and the underlying messages it transmits. It is here, in support of that underlying message, that a coherent wayfinding program can really achieve its full potential—going well beyond the utilitarian function and becoming an integral component of the symbolic and image-making power of the architectural expression. More importantly, it can take that "big idea" down in scale, personalizing it and weaving it throughout the fabric of the facility.

Cracking the Code

Generally, there are three types of projects in which a new and integrated wayfinding program can be applied: facelift upgrades to existing facilities, larger expansion and renovation projects for existing facilities, and new construction. One example of a facelift project was recently completed at the Jones Center located in northwest Arkansas. The existing space featured a basement with a service desk and a grim corridor extending from locker rooms to its swimming area. Users would descend into this dimly lit lower level of the facility to use the pool and encounter undifferentiated spaces with dreary walls and little in the way of directional cues or specific signage. With a very small budget, the once dark and unattractive area was revitalized. It is now brighter, more welcoming and easier to navigate thanks simply to new paint, flooring and lighting, and incorporation of effective signage.

Many of the physical education and athletic facilities built in the middle of the last century are of a specific type. They tend to be box-like structures with little spatial articulation, long passageways and a non-hierarchical arrangement of functions. Navigating this type of facility can be an especially daunting challenge. While undertaking a complete renovation and expansion project at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, special attention was paid to the integration of the new Kress Events and Recreation Center with the old Phoenix Center—defining a new sequence of spaces throughout the entire facility and ensuring the clarity and connectedness of the arrangement.

It is in a wholly new fitness or recreation facility that a fully integrated wayfinding program can reach its full potential. Here, the major architectural components and the prime interior spaces can be conceived in relation to an integral thematic and sequential organization. Furthermore, an integrated program of wayfinding elements can be woven throughout the facility, reinforcing the understanding of the space-use arrangement and elevating identity recognition. The Claude Moore Community Center in Loudon County, Va., is a prime example. It features a large, emblematic entrance that honors the region's strong rural heritage and defines a strong, focal start to the facility's sequence of spaces. In addition, a subtle integration of directional signage, coded colors and sequential visual cues augments and supplements the organization revealed through the architecture itself.

From small cosmetic upgrades to complete new construction, all athletics/recreation facilities can benefit immensely from a well-conceived and well-integrated wayfinding program. Wayfinding provides an informative and potentially meaningful thread that knits a building's disparate elements together and ultimately organizes the users' experience and memory of the facility.


Curt Moody is president and CEO of Moody-Nolan Inc., an architecture, interior design and civil engineering firm specializing in higher education, sports/recreation, healthcare and public service facilities. Headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, Moody-Nolan is the largest African-American-owned and -operated architecture and engineering firm in the nation. For more information, visit

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