Airport Wayfinding: Guiding Passengers and Expressing Identity

Read Time: 3 minutes

When navigating through airports, travelers want to quickly find their gate—or baggage area or exit—and then be off! In their new book,
Airport Wayfinding, Heike Nehl and Sibylle Schlaich reveal how designers of wayfinding signage help passengers navigate the complexities of modern airports, and in the process, help reduce their stress. Along the way, the authors also explore how airport graphics express the identities of place, culture, and even the spirit of flight.

During the past one hundred years of commercial aviation, airports have undergone a remarkable evolution from single-building ports located on the edge of airfields to complex structures accommodating millions of travelers from diverse cultures. 

Today, airports continue to expand as travel demands increase and technology develops. And as airport planning and architectural design evolve, so do wayfinding systems. Doing more than simply guiding travelers from one point to another, the visual language of wayfinding signage often conveys an airport’s unique brand identity using distinct colors, fonts and pictograms.

In their new book Airport Wayfinding (2021) information designers Heike Nehl and Sibylle Schlaich of Moniteurs Communication Design (Berlin) take readers on a journey as they decipher these unique identities in more than one hundred different airports, while examining the past, present and future challenges of wayfinding across the globe.

Heike and Sibylle divide Airport Wayfinding, into four sections— Evolving, Identity, Digital, and Beyond—with each chapter exploring these four different aspects of information design at airports around the world.

“Evolving” explores the evolution of the airport building type. According to the authors, an airport complex is never really finished, but rather is in a constant state of evolution. Specific examples include BER Berlin Brandenburg Airport, HKG Hong Kong International Airport and LAX Los Angeles International Airport. Heike and Sibylle show how the social, political and cultural contexts of these three cities influence the evolution of the airports themselves.

The second theme, “Identity,” looks at how airports develop into unique brands closely intertwined with the image of the city or region they serve. An airport’s architecture conveys this identity, but the wayfinding system is also a key component in expressing its brand. One of the pioneers in conceiving and designing airport wayfinding systems to reflect these brand identities is SEGD Fellow Jane Davis Doggett. Airport Wayfinding features two of Jane’s major projects—IAH George Bush International Airport (Houston) and BWI Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The authors also incorporate an interview with Jane about her innovative work in this area.

Of course, font design is a central element used to express identity in all wayfinding systems, and Heike and Sibylle explore specific fonts designed for different airports. A special feature of the BER Berlin Brandenburg Airport‘s sans font is its dynamic form. The “f” opens wide upwards, as if it is about to take off. The “g” and “t” show the opposite, the landing movement. The typeface designers also incorporate characters typical of Berlin, including the German character representing a double “s” as seen in Berlin street signs.

Airport Wayfinding also showcases pictograms, which perform the challenging task of fulfilling clear communication functions—that is, being equally user-friendly for both international and local passengers without relying on words—while also reflecting the distinctive identities of an airport’s specific location and brand. Heike and Sibylle explore the evolution of the “transfer” pictogram. It is a newer image, added to the pictogram family at a later stage when airports developed into larger connecting hubs, so designers experimented with the form in different ways to make it more easily “readable.”

Airports are constantly innovating with digital technology and tools to help ensure a better passenger experience. The “Digital” section of Airport Wayfinding explores how these technologies have become essential to navigating the complex environments of airports. At HND Tokyo Haneda International Airport, for example, digital signage switches between Chinese, Korean and Japanese text, as well as English, to aid a range of travelers. 

The final section of Airport Wayfinding, “Beyond,” looks at the interdependent relationship between airports and the cities and regions they serve. Airports function as key economic drivers and constitute much more than just air traffic. Once outside the terminal, the focus shifts to what happens in the area directly surrounding the terminal and how the airport connects with the city it serves and also links the city to the world. Airports make a large contribution to the attractiveness of a city for residents, visitors and investors—and experiential graphic designers play a large role in this success.