Signage v Smartphones: The writing on the wall

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Published:  December 4, 2012
Bridget Atkinson
Signage v Smartphones: The writing on the wall

How personal journey planning and 3D mapping are driving the demise of traditional wayfinding signage and increasing the importance of placemaking graphics, along with public art and iconic architecture.

Over the last 10 years in spatial graphics, I’ve been tracking the shift from wayfinding being the core of our offer, to Frost* increasingly being engaged to focus on placemaking graphics – site specific installations that create or leverage sense of place. Why is this shift happening and what does it mean for wayfinding?

What’s happening in Wayfinding?
Generally, the biggest shift has been from ‘You are here!’ in relation to the landscape, to the current user-centric model where your destination is defined in relation to you.

Personal digital mapping has evolved from the GPS model of following a dot on a map, through satellite view to flyover, i.e. a detailed representation of an actual environment.

Google Maps, Google Maps Satellite view, Apple Maps Flyover

The emergence of hybrid maps and personal journey Apps enable us to create, save and socialise our own individual routes, rather than the highway or primary route defined by the site.

Legible London by Applied Information Group, Here and There by Schulze & Webb, Central Park App

The emphasis is on time as a dimension in wayfinding through real-time Apps, particularly in time-critical transport environments; and in some cases the extension of time to override distance as the key parameter of the journey.

Why is it happening?
In hand with development of technology that enables this, we have increasing understanding of user behaviour and opening up of fields like environmental psychology.

“What says ‘Men’s Suits’ better than a giant photo of a man in a suit?”
Ethan Smith, Interbrand.

Smith’s quote illustrates why landmarks are so effective in bridging language barriers, and introduces the idea of a landmark which is site specific, and tied intrinsically to the message.

Chinatown Information Kiosk by Frost*, Lacoste + Stevenson, Pamela Mei-Leng See, Sydney

“Traditional wayfinding cultures, such as the Australian aborigines or Arctic Inuit, embed their cultures in the landscape in very literal ways. One place is connected to another by an arc of narrative, and different parts of a single place are knit together with story elements” Colin Ellard, You Are Here

When we understand how local culture works, we can hack into that preexisting network of connections and feelings, to leverage place attachments already present.

Kings Cross landmarks: El Alamein Memorial Fountain by Robert Woodward and the Coca Cola sign - recogniseable even during changeover, Sydney

Because of these preexisting links, landmarks have an interpretative function – they help us understand environments, and give us long-term goals, so we can look up from our phones and enjoy the journey.

Gateway to the CBD: UTS Broadway Building by Denton Corker Marshall and One Central Park by Jean Nouvel with PTW Architects, Sydney

Our urban and retail environments are increasingly visually dense and complex – in these environments, zones with less signage can actually be easier to navigate.

Urban Jungle by Jason Wing, Sydney

What does this mean for Wayfinding?
Creation of legible environments through use of landmarks and intuitive wayfinding. A legible environment is one the user can read and understand – the end result is less signage and a more integrated user environment.

Landmarks can reduce reliance on traditional wayfinding signage, and show how all elements in the environments can support wayfinding – at Central Park, Halo defines the zone as much as the actual parkland.

Halo by Jennifer Turpin and Michaelie Crawford, Sydney

At 1 Bligh St, the James Angus piece works in conjunction with the mesh curtain and green walls to define the building at the ground plane and give distinct identities to the different levels and street addresses.

1 Bligh St by Ingenhoven Architekten and Architectus, Sydney

Landmarking is also about situating memorable pieces at key decision points, where we would otherwise typically have a totem sign.

University of Technology Sydney

Traditionally user journeys started when we reached the site. Now online and en-route decision making mean the journey can start anywhere. The new wayfinding spans the entire journey, and has many entry points, with the implication for wayfinding that the front door is no longer the main entry point.

Westfield Sydney City signage, App and tenant website

This diversification enables a multi-channel approach – addressing diverse user responses to information delivery by creating multi-platform experiences. Landmark architecture is one of these components, e.g. the State Library of Queensland: integrated into Southbank cultural precinct and offering lighting installations, physical poetry, online wayfinding App for 8 -12 year olds, and my favourite – a wedding venue!

State Library of Queensland by Donovan Hill, Brisbane

What is the baseline?
Placemaking is becoming an increasingly critical and integrated tool in the creation of legible wayfinding environments. In terms of the impact on traditional wayfinding, the issues are around smartphone take-up, wayfinding in time-critical environments, e.g. airports/ transport hubs, and some parts of the journey which will always be common to everyone.

CBA Darling Quarter by Frost*, Sydney

One Response

  1. leslie gallery dilworth

    excellent and perceptive.

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