Wayfinding Systems: What They Are and Why They’re Important

By Kelsey Ogletree, October 20, 2015

1020_RJWeb_Features_MichaelCourtneyEarlier this year, Washington State Convention Center in Seattle emerged from a $21 million interior remodel. Part of that transformation was a complete redesign of the nearly 308,000-sq.-ft. facility’s wayfinding system. For as much thought as designer Michael Courtney, owner of Michael Courtney Design, put into the project, his ultimate goal was for the update to be so seamless event attendees wouldn’t even notice.

You wouldn’t necessarily go into an event venue and marvel over perfectly placed and beautifully designed signage, but wayfinding systems like the one Courtney specializes in aren’t meant to dazzle—they serve the specific purpose of helping visitors find their way around. Kelsey Ogletree spoke with Courtney to find out more about wayfinding.

What is it?
Wayfinding is basically the navigational operating system of a place or space. We think of that for websites now too—how to move users through those.

Who needs it?
In a space like Washington State Convention Center, you have to move people through some fairly complicated spaces: passageways, hallways, multiple buildings. The goal of [a wayfinding system] is to show people how to get where they’re going, and then get them back out. Our job is to set up the information people need to navigate through a space, and put it in the right place at the right time, and with the right amount of information when they need it.

Where should planners think about placing event signage?
To find the right places, we do a pretty old-fashioned thing: We stand around and watch people. You can see where they start to look for information. We’ve all been in that situation where we slow down, look around, look up, turn around… we see that and think, that’s a good spot right there. Try to think in terms of breadcrumbs. Where do you need to place breadcrumbs to lead people to the registration desk, for example? Typically escalators, elevators and main entrances are the places that transfer people from the main floor to the registration area.

Why is it important?
All of this is about enhancing the user experience. It’s reasonably easy to put up signs that say “to this” or “to that,” but does it make people feel comfortable? One of the terms we often use is concierge. At a nice hotel, for example, someone is going to come to you and ask if they can help you, and direct you to what you need. They are going to be in proper character, dressed appropriately with the right look and tone of voice. That person will look different if you’re in downtown Atlanta or if you’re at a resort in Kauai.

Photo credit: Lara Swimmer

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