Airport Wayfinding and Graphics

Making Connections

Post 9/11 and in a competitive air travel market, airports need to keep their passengers happy. Effective wayfinding and memorable graphics are a big part of the equation.

Almost a decade beyond 9/11 and smack in the middle of a serious economic recession, the mantra of the air travel industry can be summed up in two words: customer experience.

Passengers already annoyed by heightened security and longer lines need to be reoriented to new procedures, and airline profits depend on moving them quickly and efficiently through the airport.

Add economic recession to an already highly competitive marketplace and the need to keep passengers happy gets notched up yet again. Passengers can not only choose their airline, but in many markets even their departure airports.

“Here in the San Francisco Bay area, there are two other competing airports within a 45- to 50-minute drive,” says Tom Esch, who manages the architectural, mapping, and signage section for the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport. “We’re not the only game in town.”

Airports need to separate themselves from the competition by offering beautiful facilities and a calm, humane, and even pleasant experience. San Jose International is in the midst of a $1.5 billion improvements program that includes a new terminal, expansion and renovation of its existing terminal, and a seven-story parking and rental car center. A completely new signage program is also in the works.

“We’re not just building a box here. It’s a beautiful architectural statement and will also be a gallery for technology art,” says Esch. “We’re trying to create a unique experience.”

First, show them the way

Effective wayfinding is one of the top factors in how passengers rate their overall airport experiences, says Jim Harding, principal of the environmental graphics group at Gresham, Smith and Partners. “If the number-one goal is customer satisfaction, wayfinding is huge.”

Wayfinding challenges are as diverse as the architectural conditions found at individual airports, but often center on connectivity—between main terminal and concourses, roadways and the terminal, or mass transit and the terminal. “The trickiest part of all may be connectivity between terminals and concourses for connecting passengers,” says Harding. “That’s a very difficult thing to package and communicate visually to passengers.”

At San Jose International, developing a completely new signage program gave the airport the chance to rethink its mindset about signage and articulate a signage philosophy. Esch visited airports around the country to identify best practices. Along the way, he formed the Airport Sign Managers Network, a group of about 85 managers from 70 large and medium-sized airports, as a way to share information and experiences. At San Jose, he established an airport signage and graphics committee, a group of key airport stakeholders who inform decisions about any airport element involving signage.

During the multi-year planning process, says Esch, “The obvious became clear: design the airport to ensure a positive customer/passenger experience. And that includes a good wayfinding experience—not just due to signage placement, or colors, or font legibility—but how the architecture, signs, and the whole environment work to make that experience as good as possible.”

The program designed by Jacobs focuses on uniformity and consistency across the airport, from roadways to terminals. “The goal is for people to get from their cars to the gate easily. If they can do that, we’ve succeeded,” says Kyle Reath, Jacobs’ managing director of EGD. To combat potential visual clutter from advertising and other media, the airport’s sign standards carve out an overhead band of real estate dedicated solely to wayfinding information. On overhead signs, gate information appears on the right, while other information is on the left. “When you’re running through the airport trying to catch your flight, it’s comforting when wayfinding information is always in a predictable place,” Reath explains.

Destination-worthy graphics

Beyond basic wayfinding, environmental graphics can be a major contributor to that happy customer experience. At their best, they leverage the airport region’s unique attributes, such as San Jose’s nod to high-tech public art.

Dublin Airport’s new 12-gate Pier D, built to accommodate up to 10 million passengers per year, celebrates the country’s literary heritage with a series of mural-sized portraits of Irish writers. The portraits—created from graphic compositions of their own literary quotations—are part of a series of elements designed to serve as cultural destinations and “pleasing visual diversions” around the airport. At the same time, says Lonny Israel of project architect Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, they have a functional role, helping to distinguish gate destinations along the pier’s elongated circulation corridor.

Environmental graphics can also be used to activate and add human scale to otherwise “dead” areas within the airport. At Indianapolis International Airport, the pedestrian bridge connecting the parking garage to its new terminal is the airport gateway for 80 percent of visitors. Electroland LLC designed a dynamic installation consisting of a field of computer-controlled dots on the bridge’s 46 linear meters of ceiling. The color-changing dots and accompanying sounds respond to visitors’ movements across the bridge and, most importantly, can connect passengers to one another, says Cameron McNall, Electroland principal.

“That’s where the title of the installation—Connections—comes in,” he notes. The dots call out the shifting relationships of movement and people, all generated by visitors as they make their way at various speeds across the bridge. Ten stereo video cameras track up to 150 individual visitors. Because the experience is infinitely variable with controllable lights and sounds, McNall adds, “We can fine-tune the experience to avoid being too assertive or intrusive.” Visitors have so far found the experience interesting, humorous, and fun.

At the new JetBlue Airways terminal at JFK International Airport, graphics support the airline’s brand while reinforcing wayfinding cues. Glowing blue walls and witty murals (often in “Jet” blue), beckon them toward key activity points or urge them to continue down long hallways or up stacked escalators.

“We see good wayfinding as very basic to providing good customer service,” says TJ McCormick, JetBlue’s manager of brand design. “But environmental graphics can be more brand related. They allow us to visually convey—in a fun, engaging way—what our brand means and how we want people to relate to it. Graphics can add a lot to the experience we want our customers to have.”


[Sidebar] ACRP: Setting the Standard

Airport signage is impacted by an alphabet soup of regulations, codes, and guidelines, from international building codes to FAA, TSA, Customs, FHA/MUTCD, and ADA regulations.

But there is no single document or guidebook available to help airport operators adopt best practices. Some airports have the resources to research best practices and craft their own programs, but others don’t. It’s a major job to track and conform to all the rules.

“There is no cookie-cutter approach,” says Tom Esch, signage manager for the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport. “Every airport has unique architecture and conditions that dictate the final signage and wayfinding solutions.”

That’s why standardization and best practices come in handy, and why the Airport Cooperative Research Program (under the auspices of the federal Transportation Research Board) is updating the handbook airports use to plan roadway, parking, curbside, and terminal signage. The ACRP’s updated “Wayfinding and Signage Guidelines for Airport Terminals and Landside” will be complete in 2010.

For the first time, it will address increased use of common-use facilities in airport terminals, ADA requirements, the special needs of senior citizens (who represent an increasing proportion of travelers), and the needs of travelers arriving on airport via transit or people-mover systems.

It will also address such wayfinding basics as signage height and placement, typefaces, use of symbols and color, and even dynamic wayfinding elements.

A research team lead by Gresham, Smith and Partners (with Human Factors North and the Texas Transportation Institute) is working closely with the Airport Sign Managers Network and SEGD to draft the guidelines. The team recently sent out an extensive survey to seek airport operator and wayfinding/signage consultant input on airport wayfinding issues.


[Sidebar] The Schiphol Standard

Airports are stressful places, and perhaps nowhere are they more stressful than in New York, home to three of the world’s busiest airports. In the late 1990s, responding to poor customer satisfaction ratings, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey called on Paul Mijksenaar to help organize a cacophony of inconsistent airport signs in many languages, colors, types, sizes, and conditions.

In 2002, Mijksenaar Arup Wayfinding completed the Port Authority’s Aviation Signing and Wayfinding Airport Standards. They use a modified version of “the Schiphol standard,” which has become a de facto international standard for airport wayfinding signage.

Interior architect Kho Liang le and graphic designer Benno Wissing first introduced a color-coded sign system at the then-new Amsterdam Schiphol Airport in 1967. The “passengers first” concept stripped signs of any nonessential information and visually classified types of information by color. Two decades later, Mijksenaar radically updated the system, adding pictograms, refining its arrows, and later adopting Frutiger as its typeface. The color-coding was modified after a 1996 fire at the Dusseldorf Airport was attributed to ineffective exit signage. Mijksenaar has continued to refine the system at Schiphol and other airports, including Aruba, Abu Dhabi, the Dutch Antllles, Frankfurt, Rotterdam, Washington, and Athens.

The Port Authority adopted a modified version of the Schiphol system, including four color modes. Yellow signs with black text direct passengers to departures, arrivals, and other flight services (“flying” mode). Green signs direct passengers to ground transportation and parking (“leaving” mode), while black signs denote auxiliary services such as restrooms, phones, escalators, etc. (“staying and waiting” mode). Grey is used as a neutral color for instructional or information purposes.

With its highly visible colors and clear visual language, the system has been very effective for the Port Authority, says Earlyne Johnson, manager of aviation wayfinding and customer logistics. “The colors can be distinguished by travelers regardless of the language they speak. The system is clear and comprehensive, which allows travelers to see the information they need, reducing the number of signs needed.”

The system is about more than just color, says Elise de Jong of Mijksenaar’s New York office. “Sign location is very important. Signs should be there where travelers expect and need them. They should also stand out in their environment. They should provide a high contrast (80%-plus) between text and background. And they should provide a legible typeface and comfortable type sizes.”

But even the most effective wayfinding system is only as good as how well it is maintained, she adds. “We never stop telling our clients that wayfinding systems are living, almost organic systems. They should react continuously to ever-changing processes and passenger needs.”


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