– Written by Paul Symonds
We are gradually moving away from understanding wayfinding as simply being a cognitive only process to understanding it as really being a far more dynamic process, which takes place most often in social environments. Moreover, wayfinding is clearly a practice that is much more than simple being something which exists for the benefit of the individual who needs to get from A to B, as I will explain below. Three key points I will discuss are:
Seeing wayfinding as a process that involves one person navigating from A to B and analysing it from the perspective of only one person is greatly flawed and, I would posit, provides the answer to why wayfinding systems and their design often fail. Wayfinding always involves a number of stakeholders and these can include:
There are many more stakeholders that could be added and, to really understand the dynamics of wayfinding design, it is very useful to appreciate this range of peoples who influence, guide and shape the process.Imagine, for example, the needs of an airport, a location which needs to be profitable in order to survive. In the UK, many airports take a percentage of the income from sales that retail outlets make inside the airport. As a result, guiding passengers is not necessarily about guiding them via the quickest or most direct route. For airport owners, in other words, the best option can be to guide passengers past key points of sale. Here, the concept of ‘steering behaviour’ is used, as signage and the design of the space is shaped so to increase sales. As you can see from this one simple example, routes are often not designed for the individual’s benefit.
As mentioned in the previous section, we rarely, if ever, truly wayfinding through only our own influence. We also very often wayfind:
Wayfinding is a highly social activity and one that also can be highly cultural. It is now possible to fly worldwide and trying to find the way in a country where we do not understand the language, are unfamiliar with the location and without a guide, is not unusual. A large international airport such as Gatwick Airport, can in fact see people from 150 countries, who speak a hundred plus languages go through its location just in 24 hours and yet, all of these people need to be able to find their way!
Those who study psychology and attach ONLY cognitive elements are missing key parts of the realistic practice that is wayfinding. Even in the most isolated of places, such as in the countryside where we are alone, the body, as a whole, is linked to wayfinding. Our ability, for example, to attempt certain routes because of our physical ability can limit us. To find the way along certain mountainous areas might mean that the path depends on the physical ability to climb past certain areas. Likewise, routes change because of the need to portage a canoe or rely on our ability to find an entry point for the canoe. Wayfinding, in other words, is a fully embodied practice and to classify it as a cognitive only process, at the very least, is naive.
One definition of wayfinding that brings together all elements of the process is by Symonds et al (2017), who define it as:
The cognitive, social and corporeal process and experience of locating, following or discovering a route through and to a given space.
Read the article in full on Exploring an Absent Presence: Wayfinding as an Embodied Sociocultural Experience