Wayfinding is a term which has been around since the 1960s and although a rather simplistic term, it is the commonly used term to explain how we get from A to B. One would expect a more dynamic expression such as ‘Directionalisation” or something which sounds at least a little more exciting. Wayfinding in travel is something that many of us take for granted and we only really become consciously aware of the significance of signs when we are under stress or pressure.
Have you ever noticed how large the signs are in an airport are to tell you where ‘Passport Control” is and yet the signs to find a specific shop can he hard to see. Ever noticed how well toilets are sign posted in airports and yet the signs to find the airport train station can sometimes be misleading and confusing. These signs become more conscious to us as we find that we have limited time or when we feel the pressure once we have gone through customs at arrivals and are then faced by a new country, culture, language and the stress of trying to work out what to do next.
Arriving at an airport late, means that the need to analyse which signs are important needs to be decided upon at a much quicker rate and this can turn the decision making into a conscious effort. Signs can be not only informational and for wayfinding but also what can be termed “Re-assurance” signs in that the signs are designed to provide you with information which you have already faced. You might have also gone through customs and the baggage check area and see a sign saying “Welcome to Gate 12”. This signage in this case is designed as a comfort sign; a sign to acts as confirmation and to be re-assuring. This is interesting in that people of different ages and cultures for example can interpret signs differently and also have different needs.
An elderly person who is more uncertain and needs more -re-assurance might sub-consciously benefit from comfort signs. Similarly, if you are unable to read in the local language but see a sign which is understood by most traveller’s such as a gate number, then it does allow you to relax more as you travel.
Design and space are important factors in the equation when we consider the cognitive nature of signs and how they are perceived. Signs often work in conjunction with space and design and each of these subject areas interact with the other. A sign which on its own might seen quite large but when placed in in the middle of 20 other signs, might not even be noticed. If you have ever been to Las Vegas, you will be aware of how signage is taken to a new level in terms of design and the sheer number. Locations such as Hong Kong, Tokyo and Seoul, Korea also offer a fascinating insight into signs for those of us who see ourselves as semiotians. In an airport context, there is a certain standardisation across many airports worldwide compared to some other aspects of the tourism experience. An airport such as McCarren Airport in Vegas though when you arrive, immediately signifies what you can expect from the city at large. What other airport in the world has rows of slot machines in the arrivals hall? This form of sign in the form of what image is portrayed and the message it sends to you, is as much as part of semiotics as actual signage is. You can learn more about wayfinding and travel – click here for further information.
Airports perfectly highlight the difficulties involved with wayfinding in complex indoor environments, particularly given the sheer number of people who need to find their way through the airport. It is not just a case of those arriving at the airport and needing to navigate the classic route from main entrance to check-in desk, through security, to the boarding area and then onto ones plane. Consider for example the complexities that can be involved with arriving passengers who need to connect to another flight and to do so in a large and confusing airport such as Dallas Fort Worth, Heathrow London or Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Without very clearly defined paths the process of navigating between planes and flights can be both stressful to the passenger and also costly to the airline.
Wayfinding in an airport can also involve people of varying mobility types including those who need walking aids such as a wheelchair or a stick and those who are blind or suffer from hearing issues. Navigating design and implementation thus essentially needs to also incorporate ways of providing information which does not rely on people to be able to read and in a certain way, such as at a certain height. A blind person will of course not see the signs, whilst a wheelchair bound passenger might struggle to see signs which are too high. Many disabled travellers often do travel with a helper, but this does not detract from the need from signage which provides for such as diverse social and cultural range of individuals and groups. Signage needs in other words also to make sense across culturally boundaries and languages. For this reason, symbols are often used on some signs and one classic example is the symbols used to signify airport toilets (restrooms in American English) with the stick symbols to signify a man and a woman.
Security requirements by the airport authorities further complicate what is already a difficult and complication exercise. As pointed out by Crouch and Desforges (2003). we might own our own bodies but we are not always in charge of it and an airport provides us with a good example of this. The wayfinding process has to take in the needs of others including the security and airport authorities.