One of the biggest challenges facing wayfinding designers is trying to cater for the wide variety of languages and the use of multi-lingual signage. An airport such as Heathrow Airport in London, for example, with over 200,000 passengers each day, can expect to cater to passengers who speak over 100 languages or more. Trying to thus cater for such a wide range of cultures and languages can be complex. There are though a number of solutions for overcoming these challenges as are discussed below.
Driving and Reading Multi-lingual Signage
A common problem I see when people are designing multi-lingual signage, particularly in airports, is the decisions and planning for trying to cater for two different languages. This problem exists in many wayfinding locations, including urban centres, but is especially common as a problem in international airports.
When driving into one of these airports, having all of the signs in the same colour, font and size, means that drivers have a very real problem to read the sign quickly enough in order to gather the information they need. In certain locations, such as airports, the users are also often unfamiliar with the location and also often in a different from a normal state of mind because, for example, the person is off on holiday or thinking about a business trip, or preparing to meet a relative.
Colour coding is a great solution to solve many wayfinding issues associated with multiple languages. In the same way the colours and visual identification of a national flag can be used to steer people towards specific language signs and information, colours can also be used to differentiate languages, such as on road signage. The cognitive process immediately becomes a far easier one, once you only have to be aware of one colour. Signage which makes the two languages distinct from each other is such an obvious idea perhaps, that it is surprising that it is so often ignored.
International Visitors and Signage for different Languages
Another use of colour coding to help language problems is shown above in an example whereby each parking area, within Bristol Airport, is colour coded. The colour coding also helps passengers to remember which parking area they need to use, but also helps passengers to identify the information they need much quicker. The benefits of this type of colour coding can though help those who use different languages, thus colour coding is an extremely useful tool in wayfinding design for a number of reasons.
Whilst the above piece of signage is a static rather than a digital sign, you can make use of digital signage to specifically target languages to provide specific information to specific passengers at given times. If you have a number of flights coming into your airport at a specific time, you can, for example, provide wayfinding directions (icons and language) in one or more dialects for those specific passengers. Later on, a flight coming in from Italy with a high percentage of Italian speakers can be signed in Italian. Digital signage in this respect provides a new opportunity to provide more targeted wayfinding information.
Making use of icons is a wonderful way to greatly reduce language issues BUT provided you stick with the most internationally recognised symbols. One problem is that designers love to design i.e. they love to try and make new icons and new symbols to try to impress. The problem is that these newly designed logos are often not as clear as they need to be. Where possible, try to use icons such as the traditional man, woman and wheelchair to signify toilets.