Airport wayfinding: Easy for everyone

A broad view of the inside of an airport building with people coming and going.Airlines are working to improve accessibility, but airports also need to step up. People with disability are making regular complaints, and older people are likely to just give up travelling by air. Not good for the travel industry or tourism. So a well researched guide is welcome in this space. Wayfinding is far more than just good signage – it starts with the whole building design. In airports it’s about the customer experience and promoting independent travel. That’s regardless of age or ability.

Enhancing Airport Wayfinding for Aging Travelers and Persons with Disabilities is a comprehensive guide for wayfinding professionals, signage designers, and interior designers. It is published by the US Transportation Research Board’s Airport Cooperative Research Program. It comes with a checklist that emphasises community consultation as part of their universal design approach to wayfinding. The detailed guide also has a companion PowerPoint presentation that covers the key elements with lots of pictures. The presentation is 15MB and is downloadable from the main webpage and is a good way to get across the key points. There are eight chapters in the guide:

    1. Introduction
    2. Understanding the needs of aging travelers and passengers with disability
    3. Wayfinding strategies via visual, verbal and virtual communication
    4. Airport planning and design consideration
    5. Departing customer journey
    6. Arriving customer journey
    7. Connecting customer journey
    8. Wayfinding technologies for aging travelers and persons with disability

To achieve the overall objective of helping aging travelers and persons with disabilities to travel independently, an airport has to consider more than just helping these customers know where to go.

Which way is up?

A sign post with one sign saying this way and the other saying that way.Signalling the right way to go has to account for cognitive abilities, visual acuity, and spatial awareness. As people age some of these abilities decline. Consequently, considering the needs of this group in wayfinding design will make wayfinding easier for everyone.  Mishler and Neider have identified five key points and explain them in detail in their article. They are: 

  1. Distinctiveness: the information should have cues that are informative to the route and can be distinguished from the surroundings.
  2. Consistency and standardisation: information overload can be avoided with the consistent placement, size, colour and shape of signage.
  3. Simplicity: limiting each sign to three or four units of information, because people tend to glance rather than read, and avoid visual clutter.
  4. Isolation: keep the signs away from other visual clutter to help focus attention in the right place.
  5. Reassurance: letting people know they are still on the correct route especially if the destination is a long way from the directional sign.

The title of the article is, “Improving Wayfinding for Older Users with Selective Attention Deficits”, in Ergonomics in Design.  Here is part of their conclusion:

“Because maps and other layout information may not be easy for older adults to use, providing environmental support through wayfinding signage might be the best way to mitigate these difficulties. However, visual selective attention, which is needed to find and read a sign, declines in old age, which makes it particularly important to adhere strictly to certain guidelines for signage design.

Adhering closely to the principles of distinctiveness, consistency and standardization, simplicity, isolation, and reassurance should help not only to improve wayfinding performance for all users but also to reduce the performance gap between older and younger users.

Providing age-inclusive signage could help to maintain high mobility in older adults, prevent them from becoming isolated from their communities, and therefore help to avoid the mental and physical health issues that tend to be comorbid with age-related isolation. Age-inclusive signage design is therefore an increasingly important topic in an aging population.”   

Wayfinding Design Guidelines

front cover of the wayfinding guidelinesWayfinding requires designers to organise and communicate the relationships of space in the environment. Basically, it is the naming and marking of places, identifying destinations, and providing directional information. The Cooperative Research Centre for Construction Innovation produced a comprehensive, if somewhat technical, set of guidelines for wayfinding.

The guide covers basic principles, and very detailed design solutions and strategies, covering topics such as arrival point, main entry, internal arrival point, graphic communication, restrooms and toilets, lifts, and signage design. Sign legibility, system design criteria, and viewing distance to signs are all covered, plus much more. Wayfinding is a key element of accessibility for everyone. Making signs and systems universally designed for everyone requires additional thought and planning. 

AS 1428.4.2 Wayfinding Standard, was published in 2018 by Standards Australia.

A grey marble wall has numbers embossed on it. It is difficult to see unless there is shadow on the embossing.Editor’s Note: I have come across a designer or two who consider signs and signage an imposition on their design and try to minimise their use or placement.  This picture shows how one designer thought that disguising signage was a good idea.

Public wayfinding “in-the-wild” study

Picture of railway station and successive dynamic signs at each platform entrancePublic displays are becoming more sophisticated, animated and dynamic, but are not often used for wayfinding. Three architecture researchers from University of Leuven in Belgium conducted an “in-the-wild” study at a railway station to test various display designs to see which would give the best wayfinding information.

The method and results are carefully documented with some interesting findings and conclusions. Graphics, charts and photographs add to the explanations and considerations for designers in the use of symbols, colours and spatial distributions.

Perhaps not surprisingly, they discovered that different people have different ways of seeing, using, and interpreting signage and wayfinding cues.

The study by Coenen, Wouters, and Vande Moere is Synchronized Wayfinding on Multiple Consecutively Situated Public Displays.

Also available from the Research Gate site.

Community Wayfinding: Pathways to Understanding

picture of the front cover of the book - deep blue background with simple letteringJon Sanford is a well-known architect in the universal design community in the USA and has published widely. His chapter, Design for All Users tackles wayfinding and explains that despite its potential, universal design has not been widely adopted as a strategy in promoting community wayfinding. The book, Community Wayfinding: Pathways to Understanding is published by Springer Link and individual chapters can be purchased. Or go to the ResearchGate site and request free access to the full chapter. 

You can download the table of contents to see what else might be of interest.

Abstract: Universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. Whereas this strategy is typically applied to broadly enhance usability of design—including its safety, accessibility, and simplicity—universal design can also be applied in a more focused manner to facilitate specific aspects of usability, such as wayfinding. In this chapter, the author describes not only what universal design is, but also what it is not: specialized designs to compensate for functional limitations. The chapter makes the case that specialized design, as embodied by the technical specifications in the Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines, defines a rigid set of prescriptive rules of what to do to promote safety and accessibility for specific individuals; universal design, as articulated by a set of performance guidelines embodied in the principles of universal design, describes how to promote usability and inclusivity—including community wayfinding—for everyone. Despite its potential, universal design has not been widely adopted as a strategy in promoting community wayfinding. The chapter addresses directions in research, policy, and practice necessary to promote universal design implementation.