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What is Wayfinding?

Being guided directional through an airport

What is wayfinding you might ask when first hearing the term?!

You might have heard of terms such as navigation and wayfaring but for many people, wayfinding is terminology they are not familiar with. The term, if you are looking for a very quick understanding, is about we find our way between places. There are though, a number of considerations and factors involved in the process of wayfinding and these are reflected in the various definitions.

  • Wayfinding is the cognitive and corporeal process and experience of locating, following or discovering a route through and to a given space. (Symonds et al, 2017)

Wayfinding in the past has incorrectly been defined as an exclusively cognitive process and of decision making, but modern and updated research finds that wayfinding is a complex activity that covers many fields of study including sociology, psychology, human geography, businesS, stakeholder and  culture studies. Wayfinding, from a personal agent’s perspective (where we exert the agency), involves  certain cognitive approaches and herein lies the historical interest in wayfinding in psychology and cognitive based studies and research. A greater understanding of wayfinding though is now being appreciated with this activity and process one which, for example, is important in sociocultural studies. Wayfinding, rather than being a purely individual process, is a process which takes place in social situations and rarely in a social vacuum. Stakeholders also use wayfinding as a way of guiding us, such as through steering behaviour, in order to maximise capital gains. The intentional strategic use of smells and fragrances to attract a consumer towards a retail outlet is an example of steering behaviour. Wayfinding thus is an activity/process which can be approached from a number of directions from a research perspective.

The History of Wayfinding

One of the earliest uses of the term ‘wayfinding’ as one word is from the architect Kevin Lynch in his book ‘Image of the City published in 1960. Lynch (1960: 3) describes wayfinding as:

  • A consistent use and organization of definite sensory cues from the external environment

and focuses on how paths, edges, regions, nodes and landmarks help to guide us through environments. In 1981, Romedi Passini (1981: 17) in his book ‘Wayfinding: A Conceptual Framework’  and as an architect, explained wayfinding in the following way:

  • Wayfinding denotes man’s ability to reach spatial destinations in novel as well as in familiar settings.

Other definitions have evolved since the 1980s, including Golledge (1999 :6) who describes this activity as:

  • Wayfinding is the process of determining and following a path or route between an origin and a destination.

The problem though, with many older definitions, is a lack of focus on the true nature of wayfinding such as posited by Tim Ingold. Places to which we are wayfinding are NOT always static, such as the example Ingold (2011) gives of the Inuits who go hunting for food, i.e. the location they are trying to find moves according to the movement of the animals they are hunting. Seeing wayfinding thus as being about finding one’s way between two static points, as in older definitions, in flawed. Likewise, Fewings (2001) uses the concept of ‘recreational wayfinding’ i.e. whereby the destination is the place you started from.

  • Wayfinding is the cognitive and corporeal process and experience of locating, following or discovering a route through and to a given space. (Symonds, 2016: 2)

This definition from Paul Symonds connects the historical and modern way of seeing wayfinding by incorporating both the cognitive and corporeal embodied experience and provides room for the complex nature of wayfinding.

Prague directions

Understanding Wayfinding

Many people who get involved with wayfinding first think that wayfinding is about signage. Street signs, signage in airports which tell you which direction to take in an airport as you try to find the gate, or the directional signage you find in a tourist attraction telling you which way to go, are a few examples. Wayfinding is far more than signage, i.e it is a more all encompassing field, which includes the design of spaces. Lighting, the use of people to direct other people etc also come under the banner of wayfinding and all provide ways of directing people.

What is wayfinding? Well, it can include using space in design

The design of space can be employed to guide people.

Why Wayfinding is important?

Wayfinding is particularly important for a number of reasons. To provide a few examples:

  • Safety and security – Crowd control and safe movement of people is sometimes vital, such as in emergency situations. Directing people efficiently towards their seats in sports stadia prevents any potential issues from overcrowding.
  • Commercial – steering behaviour is invaluable for commercial outlets and locations in how they make profits. Everywhere, from exhibition centres, tourist attractions, airports, urban centres, shopping malls etc use wayfinding to guide people to spend, to go in certain directions etc.
  • Repeat Business – Creating a very positive customer experience is important for return business and a lost users is known to be stressed and this has a detrimental affect on users and impacts on the decision of whether or not to return.
  • Efficiency and enjoyment – From a person’s own point of view (the agent who uses the agency to make decisions), efficiency i.e. direct routes can be important but equally so, we often go from A to B to enjoy the experience of the route itself.

References Used

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Written by Dr Paul Symonds


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