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Wayfinding for All

By Lili Larratea, senior wayfinding designer

Given the impact of wayfinding on human psychology, occupant satisfaction, health, long-term performance, and the financial bottom line, inattention to wayfinding reduces the inclusiveness of buildings for everyone.’ Susan Hunter, IDeA Center

Wayfinding is the process of navigating from one place to another. In its schematic form, it is a string of decision-making points. When we are navigating through a new space or taking a new route, our minds might get busy asking questions such as: "Do I turn right, left or keep going straight?" "Am I in the right building?" "Am I on the right floor?" "Am I going the right way?" "Can I go through this door?" A good wayfinding system will answer these questions with the right information at the right time, before you reach a point where you feel disoriented or even lost. Wayfinding is largely information planning made legible and accessible to meet the needs of all the users of a space. But we don’t just use the information that we need from maps or signs carefully placed on walls to guide us, we also use architectural cues such as landmarks, lighting, furniture layouts and paving to help us navigate more intuitively through a new environment.

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It is tempting for designers to think of information needs within a space based on our own aptitudes and perceptions. We sometimes assume unintentionally that these will be the experiences of most people travelling to, from or within that space. Falling into this way of thinking can exclude people with different cognitive, visual, sensory and physical abilities and needs.

However, in practice, it is hard to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes when you have never experienced their challenges. If a designer has never used a wheelchair, travelled with pushchairs and young children, or has a cognitive disability, it is difficult to imagine the challenges and limitations these users might encounter when travelling to a new destination. In human-centred wayfinding we bring as many different users as possible into the conversation to learn from their real-life experiences first hand. We do this by inviting them to participate in stakeholder workshops, interviews, shadowing or going on roll-throughs around the space with them. 

A feasibility study was recently conducted with Transport for Wales for their new transport interchange hub and bus station being built in the city centre. We facilitated a workshop with the Cardiff Council Access and Focus Group (CCAFG) which included representatives from the blind and partially sighted community, deaf groups, elderly service users and cycling groups. We used a number of different mediums to show and explain the proposals for the new station and its surroundings including tactile drawings, a slideshow supported by a sign-language interpreter, a physical textured prototype and a virtual reality model headset allowing stakeholders to explore the model. As we took CCAFG participants through the passenger experience touchpoints, all had opportunities to share the issues they may encounter at different points of their journey.

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In doing so, we learned about the important needs to provide various forms of technology to support wayfinding and accessibility as well as staff presence to support navigation within the bus station; seating and waiting areas with visibility to the bus departure points and real-time information, and the need for adjacent drop-off facilities to allow easier access for users with restricted mobility.

Wayfinding research informs both architectural planning and information planning to help meet the needs of all the users of a space. Understanding how people use and navigate through a space, and removing any potential barriers, is key to making a space more welcoming, safe and accessible so it can be an enjoyable experience for all.

For more thoughtful and innovative solutions that promote equity, wellbeing and participation in the built environment, visit humanspace.global