KNOWHERE: Finding Ways to Teach Wayfinding

Samantha Perkins

Miami University (Ohio) 


“Not all those who wander are lost.”—JR Tolkien

Breadcrumbs. Wayfinding, an amazing tool, deals with providing navigational “breadcrumbs” to travelers, helping them find their way between locations. Speaking the language of space, information, shape, and form, wayfinding addresses the communication of information within the realms of graphic design, architecture and interior design.

But sometimes problems in clear communication arise, especially when the behavioral aspects of human navigation are overlooked.

Luckily, we can address these issues early… Assuming we rethink the current wayfinding education model, and teach beyond the book.

By considering issues of navigation behavior, we can establish a wayfinding education model that seeks to help explain the how and the why behind navigation, regardless of the ultimate where. But how do we teach behavior and context in the static environment of a standard classroom?

We don’t.

KNOWHERE, an immersive education model designed to teach wayfinding in a more hands-on manner, uses graphic design to establish educational events that communicate ideas of design elements in an immersive context and environment. Through the use of exhibit design and mobile studio equipment, the KNOWHERE model pulls students out of their chairs and immerses them in the world of wayfinding in ways that encourage exploration and creative analysis.

Rather than dictate how wayfinding design must change, KNOWHERE outlines ideas designed to assist students in forming their own opinions, solutions, and methods. Ultimately, KNOWHERE challenges students to investigate and document the existing world of wayfinding, to see what’s been done, what works, and what ultimately might be.


“No matter where you go, there you are.”—Buckaroo Bansai

Where do we start? This is the fundamental question we face as design educators on a daily basis, regardless of the topic at hand. As a multidisciplinary designer, teaching architecture, interior design, and graphic design at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, I find myself asking “where do I start” at the beginning of every class.

Where do I start discussing design principles in a way that students will be able to understand? Where do I start inserting course objectives within the lecture and project materials so that it helps them really grasp how this influences design and the creative process? Where do I start finding information that will carry these students forward in their design careers? Where do I start finding ways to help the student understand that design goes beyond pixels and paper?

But beyond where, how? How can we teach students how to reach a target audience more efficiently on the whole, across multiple fields? How can we teach students the value of analysis and direct observation? And most importantly, how can we bridge different disciplines, opening the fresh, unbiased mind of the student to ways of thinking beyond the standard disciplinary stereotypes?

Luckily for us, wayfinding design itself provides amazing tools for answering many of these questions. Wayfinding’s simple charge of leading people from point A to point B, using elements of signage, typography, imagery, color, lighting, volumetric changes, and even spatial sequencing can be applied to a multitude of design fields at multiple points within the design process.

In terms of “traditional” wayfinding, the roles played within each field become highly obvious. Since wayfinding involves the use of design to communicate information, its location within the graphic design field makes sense. Interior design has a voice, too, since wayfinding installations make use of fixtures, furnishings, and materials to convey this information. And of course architecture has a say, since wayfinding in its more traditional sense exists to help people navigate the three-dimensional spaces of built form.

But thinking beyond this, we find that wayfinding, when reconsidered as orientation and navigation happens everywhere. A website might use color, typography, hierarchy, and (in some cases) motion to help viewers orient within a page or the entire site’s structure. A book might use typography, imagery, color, and material changes to move people through information. Visual navigation across an invitation might use hierarchy, alignment, or other design principles to quickly answer “where” or “why.” Or, perhaps volumetric navigation may involve the use of lighting, color, branding, and materials to entice and lead people between destinations. But in all, wayfinding requires design— the clear and intentional communication of information.

The base ideas of wayfinding—the design of orientation and navigation across dimensions and disciplines—become incredibly useful as an educational tool in helping students understand that, no matter where we go within the world of design, we’re all speaking the same language; we’re just using different accents.

And as with all creative fields, teaching the lingo of wayfinding means we tend to make a few assumptions across the board. First, in moving people from point A to B, wayfinding assumes that everyone knows what their final destination is to be. Furthermore, it assumes that those who actually do, want to arrive using the most direct, concise, and obvious path. It also tends to ignore much of its surrounding context, assuming nothing within that location will be available to provide navigational information in a “worst-case” situation. And it assumes that everyone who encounters the installed wayfinding solution will understand its meaning, using it as designed.

But there are times when none of these are the case. There are times when wandering is preferred. Or maybe the most direct path is actually less convenient. Or the context provides conflicting clues. Or the traveler just doesn’t get the visual lingo. Maybe this worries us. Maybe not.

People navigate differently based on their purpose. Finding a quick, traffic-free path through the subway station in the morning involves a different method of wayfinding than finding lunch in a museum on a lazy weekend day, which is of course entirely different than looking for the off-ramp that leads to our next job interview (which we may already be late for). We navigate differently based on the task at hand, the amount of time given to complete the task, the contexts in which that task occurs, as well as the contexts we hope to avoid entirely.

So, in a sense, wayfinding is fluid. Flexible… Complicated.

This is because, fundamentally, wayfinding is first and foremost a behavior, long before it becomes design. At its root, wayfinding provides each person with a means of orienting oneself within one’s life, as well as one’s location, and teaching this early in the education process can lead the way to more informed designers and, ultimately, better designs.

So how do we teach wayfinding, across disciplines, remembering the highly dynamic nature of the target audience? It’s a daunting task, if fully contemplated.

Plenty of texts exist to help, covering the topics of orientation and navigation from ideas of layout, clarity of message, social implications, behavioral sciences, intuition, spatial orientation, and placemaking. But while we have this myriad of informative, very well written books and articles on the subject, wayfinding remains an illusive idea, since teaching with these resources means we teach by the book. Which means we’re ignoring our own audience…

The student.

Though the idea goes completely against our core ideology as educators, students…do not read. When asked, they tend to express a preference to learn through doing— interaction and hands-on investigations—over lectures. We’ve seen this in the success of studio investigations versus seminars or lecture environments.

Apparently, leading students from point to point, lecture to lecture, fact to fact, results in losing them along the way. So what can be done? How can we teach ideas of wayfinding in a classroom?

We leave the room.


KNOWHERE: Finding the Ways We Wayfind provides a set of educational tools specifically designed to take students out of their seats and into the world of wayfinding through direct observation and documentation tactics. Realizing that wayfinding education needs to consider not only the behavior of the project audience, but that of the student as well, KNOWHERE seeks to teach students the hows and the whys behind the act of wayfinding, regardless of the ultimate where, all within the environment, where wayfinding tends to happen.

The educational tools developed within the KNOWHERE framework work together or independently to go beyond wayfinding lectures and open a dialogue about the future opportunities of navigational design across multiple design fields.

Over a two-year active investigation, both an exhibit installation and a mobile studio exploration kit were developed and tested on design students at the Miami University School of Fine Art in both local and international settings. By having students actively investigate the contexts of wayfinding, in these familiar and unfamiliar locations, the lessons of KNOWHERE provide ideas that encourage students to wander, interact with, and explore the world of wayfinding in ways that readings, lectures, and layout assignments cannot, leaving students with direct observation and analysis skills that lead to an increased awareness of environmental and behavioral factors.

KNOWHERE’s lessons work between two different methods of education, depending upon the tool used—a more passive “culture of observation” method, where multiple wayfinding opportunities are called out within a familiar environment, or a highly active “culture of interaction” method, where students must seek out and document these same ideas in the field.

The first, more passive tool within the KNOWHERE set is that of an exhibit design, designed to lead students, point to point, through their academic home, where they could directly observe how wayfinding happens around them, perhaps in ways that become more hidden or “intuitive.”

The KNOWHERE Exhibit, installed October 2011 in the Cage Gallery at Alumni Hall, home to Miami’s Department of Architecture and Interior Design, sought to complete two very specific tasks within the venue. First, to break the traditional exhibit standards within this particular location, linking spaces throughout the building to the main gallery, leading visitors directly to the exhibit. Second, to break traditional educational barriers by engaging students outside of the lecture room, in a far more interactive “show-and-tell” manner.

The exhibit started rather low—actually laying down on the ground where students tend to focus their attentions as they walk between classes, texting each other along the way. Bright orange lines stood in direct contrast to the black linoleum flooring, providing a clear and obvious path from the lower level entry of the building, where most traffic tends to enter. On the upper level, strategically placed information flags met those who entered the building through the more formal access point, piquing curiosity and informing visitors of the roles played by their surroundings in the game of wayfinding.

From each entry point, visitors were led by various wayfinding tools, including more familiar visual elements like signage, and other, more obvious elements, such as leading lines and connected points. Each of these elements worked together to establish a very clear visual language for the exhibit, orienting visitors along the way, and opening them to learning opportunities as they moved towards the main gallery. At each point along the route, information flags opened to highlight various wayfinding decision moments, explaining how elements within that area work to orient and aid in navigating that particular space. A symmetrical entry to a classroom became an opportunity to make it to class without interrupting the lecture, for example. A seemingly mundane elevator lobby acted as a cleansing moment between two very different volumetric treatments. A cluttered mess detracted from one path, encouraging movement in a different direction. A stairway acted as a hub, helping people reorient and redirect their path. Or an expanse of space within an otherwise confining corridor helped people realize they’d actually arrived at the final destination. When visitors finally reached the gallery, they were met by an essentially empty room, filled only by vinyl graphics, three posters, and a single table with a computer monitor. The principal idea was to show how branding can activate a space, how that in turn affects a behavior, which then influences navigational decision-making. How would people react to the space? Would they find its emptiness freeing after the confining corridor? Would they find it overwhelming? Interesting? Uncomfortable? Or inviting?

The posters installed along the side walls discussed how different areas of wayfinding—behavior, space, and semiotics—work together to influence navigational decisions, while the computer monitor located towards the center-right of the room played a looped slideshow outlining these same ideas on a larger urban environment.

As people investigated the exhibit, many did not know how to react. Many students playfully wandered along the lines in the corridors, stopping to read information flags (blocking traffic in the process), while singing songs of yellow brick roads along the way. They had fun… That is, until they reached the gallery space. Here, they would stop and peer in carefully, almost afraid to enter. They had quickly realized that the empty space set up a stage for the exhibit, and interacting within that space meant they’d become actively involved in the production.

Some were content to participate, cutting across the stage, touching the vinyl graphics and walking along the wandering paths these created. Others were a bit more shy, entering along either side wall, avoiding the center of the room where the large “KNOWHERE” logo sprawled invitingly across the floor. They read, then cautiously, and quietly moved to the opposite wall, or cut “off-stage” around the exhibit using the more confining, yet comfortable, corridor route to watch the slideshow.

Only small children, those who know the world is their stage, took advantage of the logo, tracing its path back and forth with their steps, or dropping to all fours to slide up and down the corridor path, tripping everyone in the process.

In the end, when the exhibit was to be removed, faculty, students, and administrative staff alike stopped in to express their appreciation for the lessons learned with its design. Ultimately, part of the exhibit continues to live on, as building administration requested all signage be left in place, since its presence had reduced the number of lost visitors within the building, thus increasing the efficiency of both the building itself and the staff working within it.

And while the exhibit provided students with the opportunity to observe how familiar, frequently overlooked environmental elements aid in navigation and orientation, this particular tool of the KNOWHERE set was designed to literally point these ideas out within familiar surroundings. In order for students to play a more active role in learning about how behavior, environment, and culture play a part in wayfinding decisions, they need to get out of the familiar, remove themselves from the culture of observation, and immerse themselves in a culture of interaction.


For this reason, a Roadkit for Exploring KNOWHERE was developed.

The Roadkit, a portable drawing and documentation kit for wayfinding exploration, holds a number of tools within a single-piece handmade felt bag. These include a set of illustration and watercolor devices (even a TSA-approved x-acto), a water bottle (must keep the students hydrated), an orientation field book, a series of exploration prompts, sketchbooks for use in these explorations, a portable printer, and a video camera for documenting more ethereal ideas.

The orientation field book contained within showcases a series of spreads designed to explain the purpose of the kit, as well as a mapping exercise that helps students start “looking around” for ideas and elements of place-definition. Since we tend to navigate differently based upon context, investigation of just what defines a given context becomes essential in understanding what makes wayfinding happen.

Wayfinding tags, or transparencies, are also provided, which allow students to photographically tag elements within the field that might be used to identify landmarks, edges, hubs, or districts within their drawings and mapping investigations. These photographs can be printed for use in collage techniques, using the included Polaroid portable printer, or shared in group discussions about how each element works to orient within the context.

To further aid in investigating navigational behaviors and clues, a number of drawing prompt cards outline specific ideas that students are to focus on as they explore. Each card is color coded, based upon its focus of behavior (yellow), semiotics (red), or volumetric (orange) applications. And each card provides very broad ideas of what elements within an environment students should seek out, as well as which ones they may want to avoid in their investigations. Additional information provided on the cards outlines different drawing techniques students should employ in their documentation, helping them break from highly picturesque interpretations, investigating in more abstracted, diagrammatic methods. The front of each card visually suggests how each diagrammatic investigation may eventually look, while actively avoiding a highly prescriptive “do this” solution.

But does it work? Can the kit be used to teach ideas of wayfinding in a more active manner? And more importantly, can it do so without boring the students to tears?

To find out, 17 Roadkits were constructed and distributed to design students from Miami’s Architecture, Interior Design, Graphic Design, and Interactive Design programs for use in a summer 2011 study abroad studio. With the assistance of my husband, John Humphries, assistant professor of architecture and interior design at Miami, I led these students throughout the different urban environments of Italy, immersing them in unfamiliar environments and having them focus on ideas of navigation and orientation along the way.

Unfortunately, we failed miserably at keeping our son, Denver, from being bored. To. Tears. However, we did manage to keep students busy, exploring their surroundings, watching people, and documenting ideas of navigation. And they claimed to be having fun and learning something along the way.

During the studio tour, we stopped at a number of different locations, including Rome (a city of landmarks), Milan (with its highly fashionable districts), Orvieto (a city on the edge), and Florence (centralized around its St. Maria del Fiore hub). Arriving within each city, we started the lessons by the students to the more important landmarks within each area—grocers, markets, and laundromats. Afterwards, we would ask students to quickly diagram what they remembered seeing along this tour, and how they might use these elements as navigational aids in future explorations. The idea was to establish each location as a new wayfinding experience, where they could become free to work from the exploration cards and mapping exercises.

For the duration of our stay in each location, students looked at a number of environmental and behavioral clues, as outlined by the exploration cards. Some prompts had them investigating how façade clues, such as openings or scale, might inform about the function of building volumes and access to these. Other investigations called into question just what elements within an environment might constitute a “sign.” Or how a dominant visual orientation (vertical or horizontal) might lead the eye and frame information. Some investigated how space changes with the presence of people, and how such congregations might inform about circulation and access. Spatial prompts questioned how a connection between spaces can be used to lead people visually and physically. More semiotic-based studies questioned how color might establish a sense of place.

Each prompt within the kit is designed to condense highly layered environmental information to a single, abstract idea, so that students can then focus attention on determining whether that element truly works to orient within a given context. Students tended to notice that the clues that worked best were those that seemed more hidden, or “intuitive” in the end. Actively seeking them out encouraged students to further investigate how these might be used in a larger urban environment as they developed their final projects, a series of experiential maps of each city visited.

At the end of each city’s tour, students developed maps of their interpretations of that city and its navigational elements. Many focused on ideas of place-making, including landmarks and other elements that established an overall sense of that location. Some focused on how they “felt” as they encountered the city—rushed to meet assignments, overwhelmed by the density of the architecture, or relaxed and free to roam.

Others still looked at more obvious, quantifiable solutions that outlined their direct paths and methods used in exploring, such as how specific destinations literally linked together, or how a dominant color observed on site could act as a key for understanding that day’s itinerary. But throughout all examples, clear ideas of orientational elements and navigational opportunities read clearly.

In this, it became clear that by throwing students into these unfamiliar environments, literally without a map, we helped them learn ideas of navigation and orientation that they could easily apply to design in all dimensions. And in combining this culture of interaction along with the culture of observation developed within the exhibit design, KNOWHERE provides a more immersive, engaging, and hopefully more fulfilling method of learning about the world of wayfinding than standard lectures ever could.