Designing the Road Less Traveled: Encouraging Exploration through Wayfinding

Designing the Road Less Traveled: Encouraging Exploration through Wayfinding

Read Time: 5 minutes

“People do not travel, nor experience life, in a rigid way that can be wholly preordained,” contends SEGD guest contributor Lisa Bambach. In this essay, inspired by International Wayfinding Month, Lisa examines how experiential designers can create wayfinding systems that go beyond “pointing in the right direction,” and instead encourage exploration, allowing individuals to make their own way, no matter where they might find themselves along their journey.

Our present experience is the intersection of our many personal journeys. We are challenged, simultaneously, to make decisions surrounding social interactions, emotional impulses, and spiritual well-being. A single turn down one path can spark profound and unexpected impacts on another. While the future remains invariably uncertain, we seek assurances that can help us control our destinies. We gather resources, observe causation, and devise a plan to take our next step forward. As we grow with experience, our steps become more confident. We challenge convention, dream of what could be, and take action to fulfill our ambitions.

We find our own way. 

Within wayfinding systems, as people move from one place to another, they make decisions about how they get there. Most often, these decisions are governed by convenience. What is the most reliable mode of transportation? What is the simplest path to arrive at a destination? Sometimes, though, the journey is determined by spontaneity. Is there a possibility of encountering an event in this area? Whose paths might cross along the way? What is yet to be explored?

By identifying the types of challenges an individual may be attempting to solve, designers of wayfinding systems can provide options and resources to support on-the-go decision making. The team can begin by asking a series of pointed questions which lead to a narrative exposition—not unlike that of a novel—providing crucial background information, revealing protagonists, and setting the overall context. Once that exposition is mutually understood, the designers can then create solutions that empower decision-making. The resulting solutions range from resolving users’ immediate needs to enabling purpose-driven exploration.

At the macro level, wayfinding must be simplistic, such as a sign with an arrow telling you to go left or right. It is overt for designers to satisfy the most common or immediate user needs, such as identifying primary landmarks or emergency care. However, while there is comfort in a structure that breeds familiarity, not everyone needs to follow the same path, nor should they be expected to. The challenge for the design team is to anticipate how individuals will choose to use the space and which path they might take to achieve their various goals along their journey. Solutions, then, must cater to different users who may find themselves at numerous points along this spectrum—a potentially daunting prospect for designers!

Individuals’ levels of familiarity or intent may require wayfinding elements to occur as subtle cues that nudge them along at a more micro level. This interplay of micro versus macro plays out in its most complex form at the city-wide level. Urban wayfinding elements must take into account critical transportation corridors, the identities of many neighborhoods, and a fluctuation in development as the physical and demographic fabric of the city ebbs and flows over time.

In this type of wayfinding scenario, the design team does not have control over the curation of the urban environment as a whole. Digital tools, including navigation apps such as Google Maps, Waze or Apple Maps, can provide the flexibility needed to cope with the ever-changing ecosystem, providing the most up-to-date information and real-time directions. However, the digital experience must be paired with the physical to reinforce trust in the accuracy of what is on screen.

When designing for physical urban space, one can think of a city as having various nodes that are fairly permanent. Municipal properties, business corridors and visually iconic architecture and public art are least likely to change over time and thus elevated to the top of the communication hierarchy as orientation markers. Physical wayfinding elements for these are, in turn, able to be more permanent, and eventually come to define the identity of the place.

Privately owned entities, such as particular businesses along a corridor or the presence of housing, change at a faster rate. Due to the variable time constraints, the most successful systems take on the quality of the less permanent infrastructure. They are able to adapt more readily to the character of the neighborhood and thus also able to be more expressive. Solutions can range from more guerilla-style tactics, such as sandwich boards, or designated spaces in which information can be displayed, such as kiosks featuring business directories.

When adapting strategies into a more controlled environment, such as a single building, a design team can curate the entirety of the space. With such an opportunity for control, design teams need to be actively conscious of the human desire to be inquisitive. Through a multidisciplinary approach, the team can impact the physical layout of a building and employ visual strategies used to guide individuals through the space. While simplicity and repetition may be more cost effective, the design of a physical space calls for complexity, intentional aberrancies, and opportunities for organic discovery. Techniques like repetition of space types, form, messaging, and color play a crucial function in memory recall and wayfinding. Visual landmarks create high-impact, easily memorable moments, while contrasting subtle elements that create moments of intrigue. Examples include mural-sized graphics which can draw visitors from afar and then present more detailed info through digital applications such as QR codes. These more understated characteristics maintain engagement and a sense of discovery, allowing an individual to be a tourist in an environment that may be experienced regularly. 

Wayfinding systems are not simply directional markers; instead, they encompass the entirety of digital and spatial experience. Designing for experiences requires an understanding of the factors that influence individuals’ abilities to choose while minimizing barriers. These systems support the natural human inclination to explore and give a little nudge along the way so a user can confidently take their next step. By creating a diversity of physical experiences and messaging, designers can ensure that spaces are engaging and bring resolution for all types of individuals—whatever their purpose and wherever they may be on their journey.


Lisa K. Bambach is a designer, educator, and co-chair of SEGD’s Cincinnati Chapter. You can learn more about Lisa and her work here.

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