INTERIORS+DESIGN for architects

When we go to a museum, the theatre, a rugby match we expect a great experience. No longer is it enough to see a great performance on the stage or field, or a fantastic display of artefacts, what we need is an all encompassing experience. Part of that experience is provided by a fantastic space. No wonder then that, in order to keep visitors happy and engaged, cultural and leisure facilities have invested heavily in the best architecture and design. But what happens when the bell has just rung, the performance is about to begin, but the toilets are nowhere to be seen? You've been wandering around an exhibition on a hot summer's day and your young children are tired, hungry and thirsty, but there's no cafe to be found for love nor money? Customer satisfaction is really all about 'Brilliant Basics and Magic Moments' and good wayfinding is a basic. If we get wayfinding wrong, you won't get the magic moments

In contrast, when we head for a station or airport, our need for wayfinding is very different - these are transition points, not destinations in their own right...wayfinding must help us into, through and out as quickly, efficiently and comfortably as possible. The challenges facing wayfinding designers differ significantly depending on the purpose of the building, but in all cases, their work can make a substantial difference to visitor approval levels.

To be clear, wayfinding is not signage - that comes only once there is an understanding of how people will navigate a space. One of the great successes of the London 2012 Olympic Games was the wayfinding - a popular feature in the Park were volunteers perched on step ladders, cheerfully sending people in the right direction. That's wayfinding...although to be fair, it wouldn't be realistic to have that process in many other visitors and staff certainly prefer a quieter environment.

In all cases understanding people and their needs in an environment is critical to getting the wayfinding right and the earlier this is done at the masterplanning stage, the better. This should include researching the range of users, their differing needs, the variety of experience they bring, the different cultures they come from, etc. From this we can define a range of user models and develop tools like personas to test the emerging design and identify any issues before expensive construction work commences.

With leisure destinations the vast majority of visitors will be unfamiliar with the space as few 'destinations' have regular users unlike a railway station or airport. For many it will be a first visit, so the wayfinding designer can't rely on user experience. This is less about transit and destination than spaces like airports. This is about a visit. This place is the destination. So people plan a visit and the wayfinding strategy has to reflect how different people plan their visit. The wayfinding has to support how they have thought about their plan once they arrive so they can implement that plan.

Masterplanning is also the ideal time to look at the broader experience we are creating for the user of a space. Wayfinding and navigation is one element of this user experience. But it also needs to be done in a way that integrates with other elements of the service or experience. With leisure spaces, we must look how wayfinding is supported through ticketing, pre-visit information, through different media in the venue from maps, visitor guides, etc. If there is a special exhibition on, people are likely to check where they need to go before they arrive and may well plan their visit more than if it is just a casual visit. These all impact on the wayfinding solution.

The introduction of signage and other solutions can be a negative and in some environments, like heritage locations, can be problematic and architects generally want the building and its use to stand on its own. However the reality is that people can rarely navigate complex environments by intuition alone. As wayfinding designers we are with the architects in not wanting to litter a space with signs as this doesn't help - it ruins the space and doesn't help the wayfinding. By early engagement with a wayfinding designer, taking a holistic view of the wayfinding and user experience, we can minimize the risk of later sign plague.

In leisure environments it is the exhibit, the event, the space that is the most important and the wayfinding can't detract from that. So it has to work even harder as the signage and other things won't be as noticeable - wayfinding has to be in the background. The British Museum achieves this to good effect. But even within leisure spaces, we have lots of different types of visit. People come to museums for significantly different durations - so how do we support people who just want to see the highlights as well as those who are there all day?

For some spaces like exhibitions, we want people to take a certain route as it supports the story of the exhibit - the Burj Khalifa visitor experience is quite linear but works really well. So the wayfinding has to help them do this and allow people to focus on the exhibit not where they go next.

In museums or art galleries, we want to give space to explore and get lost but allow people to re-orientate when they need to - a terrific example is the AMNH museum in NYC and its explorer app which helps you find the highlights as well as helping general wayfinding. Equally, Tate Modern uses super graphics in a practical way for both floor level and exhibition identification, it has simple mapping (including handouts) and logical stairwell/lift navigation.

Places like the Southbank Centre have different uses from when a major concert is on to the more day-to-day gallery and dining use and that makes wayfinding a challenge. Famously, the Barbican in London was a labyrinthine challenge when first built.

In a sports arena, the wayfinding should be considered alongside things like the ticketing strategy, retail offerings, the local transport plan, and parking plans. This worked particularly well at the London Olympics - starting with the information on tickets and spectator guide, which married up with the transport planner on the London 2012 website, this in-turn related to the last mile signage system developed in conjunction with TFL. Finally the journey was complete with signage to each venue and seat.

The benefits of understanding people and their needs, and designing wayfinding around them are considerable including higher satisfaction levels, and a more aesthetically pleasing outcome - no retro-fitting of signs that ruins the architecture and doesn't provide good wayfinding either. By considering wayfinding early in the planning and design there is likely to be fewer signs, which are better integrated into the environment - discrete when they need to be, and stand-out when appropriate. Overall, good wayfinding leads to a better experience.

David Watts
Managing Director CCD