DFW International Airport Signage and Wayfinding

Improving the Passenger Experience, DFW Style

As Project Manager in the Planning Department at DFW International Airport, Richard Gurley coordinates wayfinding and signage for the entire 17,000-acre airport complex, including five terminals, garages, and airport roadways. DFW will host the 2014 SEGD/ASMN Airport & Transportation Workshop Sept. 25-26, and Gurley will share the airport’s $2 billion Terminal Renewal and Improvement Program, its new signage program, and improving the customer experience, DFW style. 

What makes DFW unique from other airports?

We have five terminals, so we’re dealing with multiple landside complexes, garages, security checkpoints, baggage claim areas, and departure and arrival areas. While the four terminals we’re renovating are similar, they all have different architectural features and issues. One of our biggest challenges is trying to fit a standardized system of signage into all of these terminals with different ceiling heights, corridor widths, and other physical inconsistencies.

A unique aspect of our signage is that we use a reverse hierarchy for sign messaging. While typically you would put the most important information on the top, we work from the bottom up. This is because our terminals have concrete structural beams that hang down from the ceiling three feet or so every 50 feet. You can see all the messaging on the sign that’s immediately in front of you, but your sight line down the terminal is obstructed by the fur-downs, so you can only see the bottom message on the next sign, until you get 20 or 30 feet from it. We want to make sure we put the most important information at the bottom, where people can see it as they move through the terminal. It seems to work.

What are the key challenges you face at DFW in providing a great passenger experience?

A lot of airports are either sign deficient or have a lot of sign clutter. We’re trying to strike the right balance by focusing on key decision points and information confirmation where it’s needed. On our airside, we’re putting in information nodes, which are near our FIDs (flight information displays). At four of these locations in each terminal, we’re adding six touchscreen displays that help people find out where they are and where their gate is, and what’s nearby in terms of shopping, eating, or other services. A lot of our traffic is connecting flights, so people have time to take advantage of services in their terminal or in other terminals.

Tell us about your new interior signage?

As part of our ongoing $2 billion Terminal Renewal and Improvement Project (TRIP), we’re renovating four of our older terminals, including $22 million to replace interior signage. We’re replacing a lot of old Dibond and porcelain enamel signage with new LED edge-lit panels, the latest and greatest. (Design was by Jacobs Engineering Group and Apple Designs, and our primary fabricators are Synergy Signs and Services and Artografx.)

We’re installing several sign types, but all primary wayfinding is edgelit. We’re very happy with the results so far. They look really clean and they pop out from the environment. The primary signs are ceiling hung and double sided, with vinyl lettering on aluminum panels. There is also non-illuminated surface-mounted signage.

How are you integrating digital technology to improve the passenger experience?

In our new garages, we’re using parking guidance systems that tell you how many spaces are available in that garage. There are also LEDs that hang over each space, so that you can cruise the aisles for the green lights that indicate an empty parking spot.

We also have a phone app that you can use to find amenities, shopping, and other services. You can earn points and get discounts on airport, and it can also be used for parking.

The interactive directories at the information nodes airside are another feature that we’re proud of. Our in-house IT department developed the software for those directories.

On the airport tour, what is your favorite spot that you’ll show attendees?

I would say I’m most excited to show the edge-lit signage. It’s a huge improvement. It makes the airport look more modern and the signs are so much easier to read.

Another feature is our security checkpoints, which we’ve been trying to improve for passengers. The goal is to make these areas calmer and friendlier. We’re partnering with hotels and other sponsors to add things like displays that tell you how long your wait will be, and graphics and artwork that are nice to look at. It’s more like a hotel lobby than a security checkpoint.

What about Fort Worth and Dallas? What are some of your favorite spots you’d like to share with workshop attendees?

I definitely recommend the Fort Worth Stockyards, an historic district with shops, restaurants, and entertainment you can’t beat anywhere. Twice a day they run Longhorn cattle from one end of the street to the other, and that’s a lot of fun to see. There are also rodeos and places like Billy Bob’s, the famous honkytonk. And of course Texas barbeque and steaks. You have to come down and experience it.

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