Who Needs Signs?

Who Needs Signs Blog

Everywhere we go, signs surround us.

Words and pictograms tell us where we are, arrows and directions show us where to go.

But do they help? Do we really need signs?

This is the key question for the Wayfinder. Our job is to help people get from A to B with minimal effort. To give people the tools to navigate their surroundings easily.

But we never start by putting up a sign. We start by understanding how human beings think and behave.

All of us use more than signs to help get us get around. We use numerous visual cues and landmarks in our environment. We try to apply logic to our location, which has evolved from past experience and learnt behaviour.

Whenever I go to a new town or city, I know that the railway station is almost always near the town centre. That the town centre is where all the important administrative buildings will be. That the central town square is home to the main stores and shops.

These days, flagship cultural buildings have replaced religious landmarks as the destination of choice in the city centre: look at Bilbao, Margate and Wakefield, and the Tate galleries in Liverpool and St Ives.

I know any English village town or city will have grown outwards from the cathedral or church so that spire is a great way of navigating. Pubs are often on crossroads, and if they are, those roads are often the ones that take you to the next town. Many towns have an overall topology that makes finding your way around easy. Brighton goes from a hill all the way down to the sea, so you can find your way around from almost anywhere. 

Every city has its own logic, you just need to pick it up. The arrondissements in Paris are numbered in a spiral out from the centre, Istanbul slopes towards the Bosphorus, New York is amazingly easy, you don’t need to rely on a single sign in this gridded city. Sequentially numbered avenues and streets make it child’s play to get around.

London is a bit different, I know. But I think of it this way; each part has its own town plan. The centre will have the biggest road, a church, a market, the station and a bunch of bus stops. I think all of us have this mental map that guides us, without needing a single sign. 

It’s the same with buildings. We have already formed a ‘theoretical’ mental map in our heads before we even go inside. There’ll be an entrance in the centre on the ground floor, an entrance hall or atrium, lifts and stairs. If the door and atrium are in the centre, then your mental map tells you the floors will probably be symmetrical.

Architecture only confounds us where it departs from these norms and intuitive responses. Architects have to accept the fact that when they flout convention, they are running a great risk that may be detrimental to any visitor experience.

When I visited the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh recently it took me an hour just to get out. I still can’t really understand how that building works. You come in at ground level but leave via the undercroft, where the power plant usually is.

I remember running late for a Eurostar train when they used to depart from Waterloo. I was so lost I almost fainted from anxiety until I realised I had to go upstairs. Upstairs for a train?

The best (worst?) example that everyone knows is the Barbican in London, which departs from every architectural norm going. It has confounded me in the past. I went to meet a girl there once and gave up simply because couldn’t find my way to the right bar. An ex-Barbican director once told me the wonderful story of the time they’d had to tie red threads to relevant doors and handrails to safely guide elderly guests out of a festival of Hindi films. How long would they have stayed lost otherwise?

Any architect that chooses to do this puts his or her self in a position of absolute control over the visitor. Once the decision is made to hide the entrance door around a corner, create the exit via an underground tunnel or locate the train platform upstairs, visitors can tear up their mental maps and surrender, hopelessly lost in hands of the architect.

I suppose the ultimate fix is not to add lots of signs but to tear a frustrating building down and build one in its place that can be happily used for a few hundred years.  But no one is going to build a second Barbican.

I realise I’m stating myself in pretty strong terms here. But that’s because this is what I do all day - analyse buildings. And have done for twenty-five years. I think about how easy or hard it is to navigate them. I do this knowing that my wayfinding scheme, no matter how clear I make it, cannot help solve an architectural problem. 

These days, a lot of trust is placed in printed wall maps, apps and digital displays. They all make me sigh with frustration. How many buildings are complex enough to need a map? This kind of solution has two problems; the first is orientation, translating the flat map into the three-dimensional world you find yourself in; the second is dependence—the moment you are not looking at the map, you are more or less back to being lost.

I have to say a word about access. Anyone should be able to enter and use a public building. Whoever they are and regardless of their access needs. Good navigation through clear, well-positioned and simple instruction works for everyone.

I don’t think I am saying anything especially controversial here. After all, it’s human nature to learn a convention—page numbers increasing from front to back, sport being at the back of a newspaper, a door handle being at waist level—these things are pretty universal, worldwide. Okay, in Japan the page numbers work in reverse, but once you’ve got that, it applies to every Japanese book you’ll ever pick up. You try numbering a book another way, say using the Fibonacci sequence, as see where it gets the reader. If architects do this with a building, it’s no wonder people can’t even find the front door.

In all my projects I am collaborating with someone else. It might just be me and my team and the client. Or it might be me and a graphic designer, like Pentagram or Fernando Gutiérrez. Or me and an architect, like Zaha Hadid. I always find I learn something new and useful with every collaboration. But I am always aiming for the same thing; wayfinding that works, that is as minimal as it can be and is sympathetic to the architecture.

I plan to put up as few actual signs as possible. I think that is why what I do is called wayfinding. Whenever I get a new project and visit the building I have to help people navigate, I know within moments of arriving whether I have an easy or an impossible task. It doesn’t have to be classical, but if the building has a structure I can understand, I know I only have to do the minimum, a couple of prompts here and there. One way to deal with the big open plan floors that are all the rage these days is a grid. Everyone understands a grid. 

I use everything I can to emphasise the building’s logic, a colour clue or marking something out like a landmark, helping the visitor use their existing mental map as much as possible, enabling them to have an intuitive journey. I think I have succeeded if people whisk about without having to pause.

There are numerous examples of great architecture in which people can orientate themselves without great difficulty and my wayfinding job is fairly easy. But visitors won’t remember those buildings for their great navigation, they take it for granted. And rightly so.

We need to gain an understanding of the prompts and clues people look for when they are trying to find their way. Intelligent design that is invisible, intuitive…works every time.


-Ian Whybrow




Whybrow is an award-winning wayfinding and environmental graphic design agency that specialises in making complex spaces easy to navigate. Whybrow works in partnership with some of the world’s best architecture and design practices. Recent wayfinding clients include Zaha Hadid Architects, The British Museum, Tate Britain, John Lewis and King’s College London.




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