Let’s (Not) Get Lost: The Importance of Architectural Wayfinding

THESE WALLS CAN TALK

It’s one thing to get lost in the woods, but lost in a building? Seems a bit silly, no?

Nonetheless, it’s not an uncommon experience. Who among us hasn’t at one time or another found themselves staring at a map looking at a big red dot announcing “You Are Here,” and trying to puzzle out just where exactly “here” is?

You could blame your sense of direction, but you could also blame a lack of what, in architectural speak, is called “wayfinding”—the development and inclusion of design and other elements to help a building’s users, well, find their way.

Good wayfinding isn’t as appealing as, say, an undulating Frank Gehry facade, but it’s a key, if perhaps underappreciated, component to making a building work.

“It’s often an afterthought,” says Edward Steinfeld, director of the IDeA Center at the State University of New York at Buffalo’s Department of Architecture. “The motivation for a lot of building designs is more the aesthetics and cramming everybody in.”

But, he says, awareness of wayfinding’s importance is growing. “I think it’s becoming much more mainstream to think about it.”

Different buildings and different architectural styles may require different solutions, but at its core, good wayfinding involves basic practices like establishing clear patterns for movement throughout a building, creating well defined and well identified entrances, exits and intersections, and using design to clearly demarcate different areas and regions of a structure.

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Such elements need not come at the expense of a structure’s architectural distinctiveness. Steinfeld cites as a classic example of good wayfinding Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, which, with its famous spiraling design, gives visitors a clear and straightforward path to navigate.

The London 2012 Summer Olympic games took a more aggressive approach. Not content to leave spectators to their own devices, the games’ organizers arranged for volunteers throughout Olympic Park to stand on step ladders giving directions.

Another classic example of straightforward wayfinding: shopping malls.

“The typical shopping mall with the anchor stores, that’s a model that everybody understands,” Steinfeld says. “It’s a very simple one. Everything is lined up between one store and another.”

Good wayfinding isn’t as appealing as, say, an undulating Frank Gehry facade, but it’s a key component to making a building work.

There’s a reason retailers tend to have straightforward wayfinding, Steinfeld notes. “Anybody who is going to sell you something wants to make it easy for you to find your way around.”

A point that gets to one key benefit of emphasizing wayfinding in building design: The easier it is for people to find their way around, the more likely they are to enjoy themselves, and the more likely they are to return.

This isn’t so much an issue for a building’s regulars, like employees. In their case, good wayfinding doesn’t hurt, but, ultimately, Steinfeld says, “people who work and live in a building tend to be very good at finding their way around,” regardless.

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But for visitors, it’s not so easy. And poor wayfinding can make a person hesitant to frequent a location, Steinfeld says. “If they can’t find their way around, they often won’t go there.”

And if they do, their confusion can impact even those who have figured out where they’re going.

“One of the issues with wayfinding is that if people can’t find their way around on their own, they’re bothering everybody to help them,” he says.

Better let the building show them the way instead.

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