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In many travel environments, an airport a great example, we have little choice but to navigate through security areas as part of the route through the given travel environment. In such a situation, we can choose not to go through such areas, but then we cannot fly and cannot travel abroad.

Airport security paths

Similarly, we can go on a journey across Europe by train, making up the route and the journey as we go, using an InterRail pass to travel cheaply from country to country. But we can do none of this if we do not present our passport or other travel documentation which permits us to enter other countries.

Security requirements and restrictions, in other words, mean that as much as we wish to be in control of our own journey and to discover our own routes and paths, we can only do so within the constraints of higher powers, whether they be governments, local councils or other authorities.

Even a walk in the countryside means that you are restricted according to land ownership and rights of way regulations. Health and safety regulations might also affect the route you can or cannot take, with signposts or gates sometimes directing you or blocking your way.

Security in airports

Eye in the ski camera

Security and our Movements

Some of you may have heard of the ‘panopticon’ concept, which was developed in the 18th century by Jeremy Bentham and further elaborated on by the philosopher Michel Foucault in the 1970s. Bentham focused on the control of people in prisons and he noted how, by having a watch tower which could see and be seen from all the cells, but without the people in the cells being able to see inside the watchtower, even when the watchtower was unmanned, the tower itself was enough to deter bad behaviour by the inmates.

In modern-day airports, these days we often see the ‘eye in the sky’ security cameras and whether or not they are actually turned on, is often irrelevant in terms of the effect they can have on us when we are aware of the security measures in place. These security cameras though are often turned on and they do track and record every corner of the travel space (see the report on airport wayfinding and CCTV) and even after the event, the recordings can be zoomed in on to incredibly close detail. Rather than the panopticon as we wayfind through indoor travel spaces (and through other spaces such as hospitals and shopping malls), we can actually now also be viewed by many people and after the event!

What makes some of these security measures interesting is that our choice of movement is very often controlled through these security measures, even when we are completely unaware of it. Systems such as those managed by IndigoVision (a UK based CCTV company) are able to automate for example the automatic closure of certain doors if you move in the opposite direction to what the authority wishes you to go.

The example I saw from IndigoVision feeds (at a recent presentation) was of the doors of an airport baggage area suddenly closing and stopping all movement between the baggage area and the arrivals area, because someone had walked into the baggage area from arrivals. Until the situation was checked by security, the door remained closed. From this example, you can see that we can plan routes and directions but we are almost always in the hands of an authority, to some level, both in indoor and outdoor spaces.

Security camera

Safety and Wayfinding

Safety is important in wayfinding and an easy example to express this is the case of a lady walking home through a tourist area late at night. The preference can be to walk a longer route, but which takes her through the main streets and which are busier, rather than through back street areas which are quiet and where she might become isolated. This is just one example of a number of possible examples but highlights the way in which we often choose longer routes, be it longer in terms of time or distance, because it might make us feel safer.

There is another interesting dynamic though with safety and this occurs during emergency situations such as during fire evacuations from indoor environments. One academic survey, in particular, showed that, rather than taking the shortest and most direct route out of an indoor space (be it an indoor attraction, mall or airport for example), people are just as likely to take the route through which they entered because they already have familiarity with this route.

Following the same path out might take slightly longer, but it leads to an exit which at least is known to exist. Following an unknown route to an exit can create more stress according to the research in question. Having a level of familiarity in other words, is an important aspect of wayfinding and indoor navigation.

What is known as the route angularity effect also becomes important in emergency evacuation situations and this is, in part, the job of architects and designers, who design these indoor spaces. Several pieces of research have shown in the past that a route which has more angles is perceived to be a longer route than a route without the same angles, even when the distance of the two routes is exactly the same. Creating spaces which have fewer angles and corners can not only be more aesthetically pleasing in indoor spaces but also aids wayfinding in emergency situations because it makes viewing escape routes and decision making easier.

Underground CCTV

Authoritative Figures

A quite interesting occurrence can happen when emergency situations take place and this has been highlighted in many cases. Those who have often be trained and are given the authority to be in charge of emergency planning and management, may not be those who are able to deal with the pressure of such a situation.

A fairly recent example is that of Francesco Schettino and the evacuation of the Costa Concordia cruise ship. Not everyone is able to deal with pressure in real time situations and route finding (in this case off of the boat) is often taken on by unelected individuals who, through natural and personal characteristics, are people who naturally step up to direct people. Not only do such people sometimes stand up to take the lead, but others also are willing to accept their lead and are happy to be led by such individuals.

The key to safety and security in wayfinding is also directly impacted upon by what George Ritzer calls ‘predictability’ and ‘standardisation’. If certain environments, for example, are familiar because they look the same, then there is a great chance that we will instinctively be able to navigate that space. We may not have been to that space before, but we are familiar with the type of layout in which we find ourselves now navigating.

Disabled Users

A key area which I would suggest needs more research is wayfinding for disabled travellers. Some studies have been done in this area, but the needs of people of all abilities including those in wheelchairs, the elderly and blind travellers, for example, are limited to date. Some authors on wayfinding in emergency situations talk a lot about the most direct route out. Is that route suitable though for a wheelchair? Is it really the best route? In following posts, I will discuss the subject of disabled wayfinding in more detail.

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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.