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Wayfinding Definitions, Terms and Terminology

If you are relatively new to the concept of wayfinding, these definitions below might be of assistance in understanding the main terms and terminology you will come across in discourse surrounding this subject area.The answer to a number of  “what is” questions is answered below:


Advance Warning Signs – These are signs designed to provide users with more time to make a decision and to safely stop. These are particularly useful for unexpected stops or for sudden sharp corners when driving.

Ambulant users – refers to users who are not wheelchair users but who experience some form of limited mobility. They might, for example, requite the aid of a walking stick or not be able to walk far such as because of health issues. In wayfinding, trying to provide easy access becomes important such as via accessible parking.

Architectural Treatments – This terms, when used in wayfinding, refers to the way in which you can first look at the built environment (the existing architecture) and how it can be adapted to guide people, rather than necessarily having to put up directional signage.


BLE – BLE means Blutooth Low Energy and is important for indoor navigation, i.e. for wayfinding in interior environments such as airports, shopping malls and exhibition venues. When beacons (such as iBeacons) are used indoors, the beacons tell mobile devices the location to within a few meters. Bluetooth is used as the technology for capturing the signal onto mobile devices and the technology is designed to use low energy transmission.

Blister surfacing – is a type of surfacing that is used as a form of tactile signage. On paving stones you often see raised dots within the paving and these will often be placed close to kerbs and other locations, where blind or partially sighted users can benefit from feeling the change in paving kinaesthetically.


Cardinal Directions – are directions which involve the main compass routes i.e. North, East, South and West. Giving or receiving directions which, for example, tell you to head south and to turn north at the main intersection, would be using cardinal directions.

Changeable Message Sign (CMS) – is a sign which is normally electronic and which can change to show different messages. A good example is an electronic parking sign which shows the number of available parking spaces to motorist. These signs can also be referred to as Dynamic Message Signs (DMS).

Cognitive Map – is a mental mind map or we could say visual representation, which we use to store information on spatial connections and distances and geographical relationships between locations.
Example: When we visit a new holiday resort, the visual representation in our minds of the place gets clearer each day and more developed.

Context Awareness Service – A mobile service which helps in understanding the context i.e. the environment of your location and situation and which can aid navigation and the overall experience (more on context awareness).

Corduroy Tactile Paving – Paving that have patterns on it that can be felt and used as a tactile tool by the visually impaired as this paving is walked on, the paving acting as a warning such as to signify the top or bottom of a staircase or kerb.


Desire Lines –  refers to the trodden paths that we make rather than taking the routes designed, often by ambulatory means. On a university campus, there may be a pavement, yet you will often see a trodden path across a grass verge. In essence, desire lines are the paths that pedestrians create by taking their own route as a shortcut and normally by foot or by bicycle.

Dibond – a common term used when discussing materials for wayfinding signage. Dibond is a popular term in the industry to describe two sheets of aluminium with a solid polyethylene section in the middle. Dibond tends to be a very solid and strong, lightweight but rigid and makes a great material for both indoor and outdoor signage. It is also sometimes known by the term ‘sandwich panels’ because of the 3 layers it is composed it.

Distracted Walking – This is becoming an increasingly popular term (along with ‘Text walking’ ) to describe the way in which people in a modern society are walking with their heads down, looking into their smart phones (mobiles phones, cellphones) and ignoring what is around them. As a result, the number of accidents involving these people has been on a dramatic rise!

Dwell Time – refers to the amount of time we spend in the same place. In terms of wayfinding, increasing the amount of possible dwell time for a passenger, such as in an airport, means that airport managers can make the airport more commercially viable through increased retail spending. Move passengers efficiently such that they have time to spend in the parts of the airport you want them to.

Dead Reckoning – involves understanding your present position by analysing the distance you are from your original point and amount of time spent and your original position.


Einstellung Effect – Although not a term specific to wayfinding, this term I have included because I think it can be very interesting within this subject area. The Einstellung Effect refers to how we sometimes use tried and tested methods for doing something, even when a simpler technique can be used.

Environmental Differentiation – The use of colours and other stimuli to create differentiation between environmental factors.
Example: The cruise ship painted each floor a different colour to make it possible for travellers to recognize their floor via colour coding.

Environmental Visibility – The ability to see the environment and the wayfinding signage. Is the background lighting effective, the space used efficiently, for example.

Equality Rights Act 2010 – this act is important in wayfinding because it took over from the Disability Discrimination Act to include the need to make all routes and locations accessible for all users. So in effect, in addition to disabled users, the act also requires that reasonable efforts are made by locations, to also enable the ambulant, those with pushchairs, the elderly, in addition to the fully able bodied to be able to get around locations in respect of mobility.


Field of View (FOV) – This refers to having a clear and visible view of the line or field of sight, i..e you can see the path ahead to be travelled or navigated.

FingerPost – is a term used in the signage industry for signage which has a tall pole or stand and has a number of sections pointing outwards to signify the various way points you can go to.

Flight Information Displays (FIDs) – Display boards you see in airports, which detail the arrivals and departures information.


Gateway signage – This type of signage is signage that is designed to signify a gateway such as the entrance to a city, an airport, a university or some other large space. Gateway signage, in other words, acts to identify the entrance to what is a large location. A welcome to “New York City sign as you exit the Lincoln Tunnel is a great example.

Geo-spatial Information Systems (GIS) – rather than a positioning system, is software that manipulates data as part of a framework.

Global Positioning System (GPS) – is quite well known and can locate specific locations and positions on earth, using satellites. Car SatNavs, for example, use this system.

Gyroscope – A navigational device which works on an angular basis, which can rotate and detect motion through a three angled axis spinning device.


Heritage Interpretation – See “Interpretive signage” below.

Heuristic wayfinding – is an expression we use here on in our audits and evaluations to explain a key concept in the way in which many of us wayfind and navigate in the real world. ‘Heuristic wayfinding’ refers to a practical and common-sense real-world way of finding solutions to routes, deciding on directions and paths we will take. We do not, in reality, have time to evaluate every possible route, every option and every outcome, so we wayfind by using an educated guess and make decisions based on these guesstimates.


Interpretive Signage (and Interpretive heritage signage) – A tool for explaining the cultural meaning and value of a given place or attraction. These signs provide an education but also a deeper embodied understanding of the place or attraction in question, often via the use of experiences, artifacts, people and exhibits and signage.


Jaywalking – Written as one word, jaywalking is very much an American phenomena. The term refers to when you cross a road in the U.S. in an illegal way, such as by ignoring proper crossings and just walking across in the middle of an intersection, rather than at the traffic lights crossing area.


Kinesthetic Learning (aka Tactile Learning) – this involves learning by experiencing in practice , in a physical way.

Kinetics – is the study of movement and motion. Although not specific to wayfinding, this term does sometimes get used in relation to the corporeal aspects of the field.


Landmark based learning – learning a route through following man-made and/or natural landmarks including hilltops, tall buildings, monuments and other sites visible such as from a survey point of view.

Legible signage – Signage might be easy to read from a certain distance, but can it be read from different distances; can the information be digested on a practical level; and can it be read by users of different abilities such as those who are colour blind or those sat in a wheelchair? Legible is about how readable signage really is.

Location Awareness – is when a product such as a SatNav can work out its own location. In the case of a SatNav, this geographical location is then used to guide you to your desired end location.

Location Based Services (LBS) – is a computerised system for using the location of a user to affect a certain program. If you imagine Facebook, they can send you targeted ads according to your location. LBS though is also becoming increasingly useful in wayfinding and navigation.

Level of Service (LOS) – Not specific to wayfinding but pertinent to this field of study. It can be a very valuable exercise to undertake LOS surveys frequently in tourism spaces such as an airport, to evaluate and to get a good understanding of the efficiency of your wayfinding system.


MUFIDS – This terms refers to Multiple User Flight Information Display Systems, an example being the electronic departures or arrivals board at an airport.

Markov Decision Process (MDP) – Although not a term specific to wayfinding or navigation, this process is sometimes used in analysing route decisions. The main concept behind the Markov process is that decisions are often a combination of the traveller’s decision making and partly based on other, random factors. MDP provides a mathematical equation and paradigm for analysing routes which involve the random and personal decisions.


Nomenclature – This refers to the way we name things i.e. the strategy and technique we use for naming conventions. This is important in wayfinding because it relates to how we, for example, name things in signage. Do we use the term ‘Underground’ or ‘Metro’ when naming a rail system and how will each choice provide clarity of not to users?

Nosing – Nosing is the edge of a step or kerb and is a term that you will see used when DDA and accessibility audits are discussed. Nosings should contrast with the rest of the step so that those with visibility issues can more easily view the edge of steps.


Path of Least Resistance – This is a term mostly used in physics but it can also be applied to wayfinding studies. To give an example, hikers who are walking over a set of hills will very often look for and use the path of least resistance. That is the route which provides the least physically demanding and might mean walking through the valley rather than over a hill (to give a very simple sample). Thrill seeking wayfinders on the other-hand, will often avoid the path of least resistance, because these paths would provide less of a challenge.

Perpendicular Signage– perpendicular signage refers to signage which stands tall i.e. is designed as vertical signage. A good example is a pillar which is emblazoned with directional information on it.

Personal Navigation System (PNS) – This type of system is the natural progression from GPS technology, with a personalised service using wireless and mobile technologies.

Placemaking – What is placemaking? This is the design, planning and management of small to medium spaces in order to create benefits for the people who use these spaces. Integrating artistic features into the space, holding live performances and finding other ways to make these spaces more enjoyable and usable for users is the essence of placemaking.

Point of Interest (POI) – Another similar term and alternative to the word landmark. The term differs from landmarks though in its use in sectors such as the medical industry, where it can refer to a particular area of interest set against a background, one example being when an optometrist tests your eyes.


Radio-frequency identification RFID – RFIDs in effect is a way of using small detectable devices that use an antenna or a small chip to read or transit data. From a wayfinding or navigational perspective, the value of  RFISs is that we can use these to track movements. So we can, for example, use RFIDs to study wayfinding behaviour of the paths and routes that test subjects take.

Reverse Perspective – In terms of wayfinding, this expression was used by Erik Cohen to express the way in which we can draw cognitive maps of a place, and we inadvertently  draw the places and pieces we know in an exaggerated size, whilst drawing the others places in reduced size.

Risers – in wayfinding tends to refer to steps. You will often hear for example that after 20 risers, a level area should exist so that you are not forcing a person to continually walk up an elevated staircase without rest. For ambulant users, the elderly and so on, this would make walking up stairs less accessible.

Route angularity effect – Research has found that routes with many angles are perceived to be longer than they actually are because of the angles i.e. the turn around a number of corners.

Route based learning – See definition below (Route Knowledge and Strategy)

Route Knowledge and Strategy – Navigating somewhere based on quite precise directions such as turn left and take a 2nd right and so on, as opposed to following landmarks and taking a more general path.


Shoreline – Refers to a clear outline along or through a part or all of a building.

Slow Tourism – This relatively new term and concept, and which originates from the idea of slow food, is generally about not rushing to travel somewhere and taking the time to enjoy the journey. Engaging with local communities is also included in some definitions of slow tourism. For many, cruise holidays typify the meaning of slow tourism in that the journey and slowly getting somewhere and appreciating the journey itself and taking time to enjoy the open seas, rather than rushing to fly somewhere, is a great example. Cruise travel, on the other hand, completely contradicts what some people see as slow tourism, because some advocates of slow tourism emphasise the avoidance of mass tourism. As you can see, the term is somewhat complex in meaning and is a term which is debatable according to one’s ontological views.

Steering Behavior – This is a form of wayfinding and navigation which is based on the intentional attempt to draw people into or towards a location. An example being a vendor in an airport finding ways to draw people into their shop, by finding ways to affect the routes.

Survey knowledge and survey Directions – Using an overall view of the area and often using what can be seen using an aerial view.


Tactile Ground Surface Indicators (TGSI) – TGSI’s are invaluable for helping those with disabilities such as those with visual sight problems to navigate. Through the design of features such as paving stones which have a tactile surface, such as rough edges on each a step or a kerb give the user a sign to read the environment. TGSIs are, in other words, a way we can give those with sight problems environmental clues as they wayfind. You may yourself have experienced tactile surfaces on motorways whereby the road becomes harder on your wheels and makes a noticeable noise, if you stray onto the edge inside the inside lane.

Totems – These are used to describe wayfinding signage which comes in the form of tall and sturdy vertical stands which are generally quite inexpensive and are adaptable.

Trajectory – The path or route than an object takes.


UX Design – UX (User experience) design in wayfinding is all about guiding users such that they have a positive experience. If you manage an airport, for example, no doubt that you want users to re-use your location in the future. There are different techniques for working towards creating design in wayfinding that helps to foster a positive user experience.

Universal Design – In wayfinding, this term refers to design that makes locations accessible for all users, that is, for the able-bodied, elderly, ambulant, children, those with pushchairs, wheelchairs etc.


Visibility Index – Is a way of measuring the lines of sight in a quantitative way, for the planning and evaluating of wayfinding design.

Visual Access – Visual access refers to the level to which we can see different parts of an indoor or outdoor space from the point at which we are. On entering a building, for example, the degree to which we can comprehend and have a sense of our location, will depend on the visual access we have. Large open spaces, such as in airport terminal, can mean that we, in effect, have a better sense of the environment we are in and this tends to mean less uncertainty and generally means less stress in wayfinding situations.


Wayfaring – as opposed to wayfinding, wayfaring refers to finding your way between places but specifically by foot, i..e by perambulatory movement and means. So walking routes, paths that are taken, for example, along country paths or through urban areas tend to be of interest in wayfaring studies and planning. Wayfinding, on the other hand, refers to all forms of transport in how we find our way between places, including by foot.

Wayfinding – “The cognitive, social and corporeal process and experience of locating, following or discovering a route through and to a given space.” (Symonds et al, 2017)

Wayside – is a term sometimes used, particularly in America, to refer to the design of interpretive signage that exists as you walk by, such as on heritage trails and bay trails.

Way-Signing – Is NOT a commonly used term but it is one I have heard used now and again, so it is worth perhaps mentioning. Some people who are not familiar with wayfinding see this subject area as being about directional signage. Wayfinding, of course, is a much more complex subject area and includes, for example, the use of space and design. If a town, for example, uses space well and has a landmark which can be seen from most points, then the need for signage is decreased and natural paths are much easier to follow. It is important to get away from thinking of wayfinding as just about directional signage in order to fully understand this subject areas.


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