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What is Wayfinding?

What is wayfinding? Ever seen this term and wondered what it meas?

What is wayfinding Pinterest baner

You might have heard of terms such as navigation and wayfaring but, for many people, wayfinding is a terminology they are not familiar with.

What is Wayfinding – from Dr Paul Symonds

The term, if you are looking for a very quick understanding, is about how 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. The definition I believe to be one of the best is:

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.

Being guided directional through an airport

Wayfinding takes place in all types of environments including in airports, on our way to work as we commute, in hospitals, university campuses, on bucolic and bay trails. It takes place everywhere we go.

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.

A paper map on a P&O cruise

The paper map I was handed on a P&O cruise to find the way around the boat

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’,  as an architect, explained wayfinding in the following way:

  • Wayfinding denotes man’s ability to reach spatial destinations in a 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, is 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 for navigating the city

Navigation is a part of wayfinding and signage, such as this in Prague, helps to guide us. Wayfinding takes place in every country worldwide because we have to find our way.

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 Is Wayfinding 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. This has a detrimental effect 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.

Model of Wayfinding

Model of Wayfinding

Academic “Model of Wayfinding” published by Symonds et al (2017) that helps to explain the question of ‘What is wayfinding’.

In the diagram above by Symonds et al (2017), wayfinding is expressed in such a way that the layers of complexity of wayfinding are all included. To give an example – many studies on wayfinding focus on psychology and how an individual finds his/her own way. Such focus and definitions though fail to include consideration for the people who ultimately be guiding you because of how they have designed a route to send you a certain way. In an airport, planners and architects might create walkways that take you past shops and force you through a Duty-Free area and leave you no other way to reach the departures area. In this example, the diagram above allows for the full practice of wayfinding to be represented. In this airport example, in addition to the individual, wayfinding is about the planning, commercial needs of the owner of the location, signage makers and their ability to design navigational signage, architects who design space and so on.

So, in the diagram above, society represents the social influences including, for example, people we ask for directions, whom we wayfind with and who populate the same spaces through which we try to find our way. This also includes guides such as tourist guides who help to guide us.

Wayfinding, in other words, is very strongly influenced by sociology  

The diagram also included consideration for a very important aspect of wayfinding and that is the embodied nature of this practice!

If we get lost it can be very stressful and involve a range of emotions.

Some users are ambulant users, meaning that they struggle in terms of mobility. Some users have disabilities whilst others are restricted, such as because they have to also choose routes that are suitable for also guiding others such as children. A route might be across tough terrain and easy for an individual but impossible with young kids in tow and thus the route options change.

Finally, the diagram in the bottom sphere provides consideration for environment and artefacts.

Technology, for example, is partly shaping how we navigate between places and also how we pre-plan routes. Likewise, physical signage, lighting, buildings and space all shape how we are able to wayfind.

Wayfinding is a dynamic practice that must be seen in this multi-layered way if the dynamic nature of wayfinding is to be understood.

Wayfinding Habitus

A key element introduced in the article by Symonds et al (2017) also is the concept of “wayfinding habitus”. We have past histories and those histories help to shape how we act and make decisions. Well, when we try to find our way in a location we might already be familiar with it or it might be a new location, so we may or may not know how to find our way there. With wayfinding habitus though, there is also the whole character we have developed as an individual that also helps to shape how we go about tackling a route. We might be scared to try a new route or we might, on the other hand, see it as an exciting challenge. Our habitus shapes many aspects of wayfinding and how we tackle routes! We, in other words, develop a habitus that is specific to how we wayfind.

Heuristic Wayfinding ad What is Wayfinding

An important concept in wayfinding also is what I term heuristic wayfinding. As we take routes, we are constantly making decisions and also constantly being affected by external factors.

  • You may begin to feel hungry and adopt a route to find coffee or food.
  • A traffic light turns red and so you decide to take a different road and hence route.
  • A friend calls you on your mobile and this, in effect, changes where you will meet and the route you need to take.

Routes constantly change and once we arrive at a destination we are then inadvertently on the way to somewhere new!

References Used

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Written by Dr Paul Symonds