Intuitive Navigation in Interior Spaces Starts Here

Cynthia Damar-Schnobb's Blog, "Intuitive Navigation in Interior Spaces Starts Here"

“..keep heading that way until you see a round blue sculpture – you can’t miss it, then turn left at the sculpture, head down the corridor for about halfway, the room you are looking for is on the north side of the corridor”

The north side???!

I saw this comic stripmaking its rounds online, being shared many times with captions not unlike ‘This is SO me!’ by many social media users. It made me think about the many instances where Cardinal direction (north, south, east, west) is inappropriately used as the main method of providing directional information. In this piece, I will touch on its relationship with wayfinding and orientation within interior spaces.

How many times have you stood in front of a directory map, perhaps in a shopping mall or in a stressful environment such as a hospital, and you think to yourself, “Oh this is a terrible map!” but you couldn’t really pinpoint what exactly were the attributes of the map that make it so terrible?

Many of us have seen a directory map inside a public facility that is oriented with the north side of the facility shown on the top part of the graphics. Unless the direction in front of the user is also north facing, we’d likely see a few people standing around the map trying to find their bearings, tilting their heads whilst attempting to figure out which direction ‘straight ahead’ really is, “Is it to my right? ..and then I have to turn where?”

There are good reasons behind the best practice of orienting the user to a map with the ‘straight ahead’ direction being on the top part of the graphics. They include:

  1. The user will not be required to constantly decode that east/west/south really means straight ahead, and that turning north/south/west really means turning left, for example. In a hospital setting where a person is late for an appointment or in distress, it is much easier to comprehend up=straight, left=left, right=right and down=backwards.
  2. While some people navigate more efficiently when following Cardinal direction, this intuition often no longer applies the moment a person enters an unfamiliar building as they have to quickly adapt to the corridors and walls that no longer correspond to the outside orientation. Other means of spatial navigation will have to come into play to help with re-orientation within the space: i.e. memorize the entrance name/number, nearest landmarks such as a coffee shop, a fountain, a sculpture, etc.
  3. Not everyone understands north, south, east and west directions. Culture plays a big role in how directions are given and/or understood. North Americans are most familiar with Cardinal directions because it is in our everyday life when navigating within our cities, which are built largely in grids of streets with half going west to east and the other half north to south. Many other cultures around the world, however, are not used to this navigation method largely because many cities in Europe and Asia were designed without mostly perpendicular streets, for as many reasons as there are cities like this.

Designing for public facilities using best practices promotes inclusivity to users of various navigation abilities and cultural backgrounds.

An interior directory map’s orientation is just one example of how Cardinal directions may be misused. Space planners sometimes overlook the fact that not a single user of the facility will be viewing the space from a bird’s eye perspective. We’ve all seen names such as South Elevator being used in a facility where there is no other spatial cue to help indicate where north and south start and end within the building. It was likely named ‘South Elevator’ the day it was drawn on the south side of the floor plan. This is generally not helpful to users as more often than not, it creates confusion. Sadly, this is usually when signage is needed, not to enhance the users’ experience but rather as a band-aid solution to make up for poor planning.

There are certainly exceptions and examples of when Cardinal directions may be used successfully as a means of orientation within an interior space, such as when the orientation to outside is clear through large windows and/or in simple open spaces with distinct architectural layouts (e.g., in an elongated space that spans north/south). This does not absolve a designer of the importance of having supporting directory maps that are intuitive and designed with best practices in mind.

Successful wayfinding starts at the space planning stage. While a directory map is just one of many tools that assist with wayfinding navigation within an interior space, it is the one that greets users upon entry to a facility and is consulted the most by those who are lost within it. Certainly there are other factors that have to be considered when creating an effective wayfinding strategy. Ensuring a map is oriented correctly gets us part of the way there, but other considerations such as nomenclature, landmarks, thresholds, lighting, as well as graphic elements including icons, pictograms, color and typography - to name a few - must be considered...but let’s leave that for next time.


This article was originally published on's Entrospective

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