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What can we learn from navigating NYC for understanding wayfinding? Let us explore the Big Apple below!

Navigating NYC

Wayfinding is an activity which is gradually gaining more attention as expenditure in the tourism industry continues to build worldwide and with many destinations and countries highly reliant upon tourism income. Whether or not it is right that a local culture can become dependent on tourism is an issue of its own.

Manhattan and navigating NYC

One thing which is for sure though is that the more effective wayfinding is, the greater the opportunity for guiding tourist to places of expenditure, to improve the overall experience of a visitor, and to ensure efficient people flow.  – whether it be for safety, because of time constraints or for any other reason i.e. branding. Many cities worldwide have begun to take more seriously strategies for navigation and cater to tourists whilst some cities have worked hard for many years to cater to this market. One such city is NYC.
Little Italy in NYC

Signage and Navigating NYC

NYC is truly unique and even the way in which Little Italy is so subtlety distinguishable as an area you are walking into, with the way in which the fire hydrants are painted in the colours of the Italian flags, provides a clear semiotic message communicated to us all.

“You are now in the Italian part of NYC”! New York City is a semiotician’s dream destination with so many messages being constantly conveyed to tourists, locals and other visitors. The American flag is one such sign which is popular in American cities including NYC and which is symbolic of the American dream and modernist society.

Grid System

Many American cities use a grid system as opposed to a much more random street design and naming such as you would find in most UK cities. If you have ever tried to make your way to a specific street in London whilst carrying a backpack or suitcase, as you try and find your hotel, you will probably understand the apparent randomness of street design and naming in the UK.

Many U.S. cities were planned more recently than many UK cities and this has resulted in the popular U.S grid system. In a city such as NYC, I personally like this way of mapping and designing a city, particularly given the way in which New York City still maintains huge character and charm as an urban space. NYC is yet another great example of clustering in wayfinding, with a bombardment of semiotics and literal signs constantly conveying messages in the form of advertising, governmental controls (i.e. street and warning signs) and signs of all types of meaning.

NYC landmarks for navigating NYC

Performance Space

The concept of performance space has become very popular in wayfinding, semiotics and cultural studies and you need to look no further than the Big Apple to see how performance in the way of semiotics works. NYC is a vibrant living organism with its own heartbeat. The city never sleeps and even when it slows down in the early hours, you can still sense its pulsating beat. If you think of all of the shows which take place in the theater’s on Broadway, you might consider instead choosing to watch the streets of the city and see what is a real-life play.

Sitting drinking a cup of coffee and looking out over Times Square, you can get the feeling you are watching a live performance. On one particular afternoon sat with my good friend Francis in the Time Square McDonalds (where we’d buy a coffee to get a cheap seat with what is one of the best views looking directly down onto the square) in the course of 1 hour we observed a lady walking down the street with a very large bright yellow and black striped live snake wrapped over her shoulders (much to the amusement of everyone who walked by her), a TV news crew, two stars from American television and the site of a traditional hot dog vendor pushing his cart through the area (a cultural icon of the city).

Signage training eCourse
Many television shows and movies have tried to highlight the real America and the typical aspects of American culture and at great cost. This city though lives and breathes every aspect of the real America. Immigration, capitalism, sport (and the singing of the star spangled banner at the Yankee Stadium), post-modern art (and its museums) and Ground Zero (a symbol of the fight for democracy). NYC is a city which is unlike any other U.S. city but yet which perhaps collates the best of all states. From a semiotics viewpoint, the city has come to symbolise all that America is.

La Caridad on Broadway

My favourite place to eat worldwide! La Caridad. Simple good tremendously well.

Take a look at my favourite NYC restaurant above and you can see why my attention was first drawn to the place 15 years ago. Well lit inside and always full and visible from the street (it’s on Broadway) and always busy but never queue’s which are inconvenient,  there is instantly a feeling to experience and know why it is so popular inside. The fact that the food is fantastic (a mix of Chinese Cuban food) I found explains the popularity of this place with locals and those who know of it. La Caridad is situated at 2199 Broadway.

Applications for Navigating NYC

From a pure navigational point of view, there is also help at hand. There are some very good city navigation systems. One application you might want to start with is the CityGuide New York app (available via Android). New apps are continually being designed but the ones below are some of the best at the time of writing. If you know of better apps for getting around NYC, feel free to let us know.

Point me app

The NYC Way app is another great option available via iTunes and is a tool which details a variety of information on the city including ‘Street Eats’ (places to eat) and a local subway map. You might also though want to print off your own subway map and there is no better place than the official MTA (Mass Transit Authority) site which is the official city governmental department for the local transport.

Navigating Broadway, NYC

Urban Planning and Layout

Manhattan as the hub of NYC has developed as an urban area largely as a result of the natural contours of the natural landscape.

The Hudson River to the West of the island and the East River on the left, provide natural land breaks which make it easy as we want around Manhattan to know where the borders of the suburb area. Centrally in Manhattan, Central Park acts as a central focal point and provides those of us exploring the city with attractions which we can use as landmarks for navigating the city.

From my own experience of living for one year in New York City, this is a wonderful city to explore in the form of recreational wayfinding i.e. getting lost and exploring but with the knowledge that there are natural constraints always there to remind me of our general location.

Manhattan map

On entering Manhattan from the Hudson River, the Statue of Liberty acts as a landmark but can also be classified as a symbol. Some attractions can take on multiple meanings and a statue of this type, in this case, is widely accepted as symbolising freedom and hope, whilst also being visible from a distance and a landmark and attraction.

Centrally in Manhattan, the Empire State Building acts as a ‘Survey Direction’ finding attraction. Rather than having to rely on directions on a map or which are written down, such an attraction which is visible from a distance acts as a guidance mechanism given that it can be followed from a distance.

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Dr Paul Symonds has a PhD in Wayfinding from Cardiff Metropolitan University in the UK. Paul works with the signage industry, airports and other locations providing wayfinding audits, consultancy and training.