Guest Column - October 2008
Find a printable version here

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.