Royal Opera House: Opening Its Doors to All

Read Time: 6 minutes

Endpoint, collaborating with the Royal Opera House, creates a wayfinding system that allows the venerable London institution to open its doors to everyone.

Opera houses, symphony halls, and ballet theaters can be intimidating spaces. There’s often an air of grandiosity and exclusivity in these structures—and a notion in popular culture that these spaces are reserved for the highly cultured, the socially elite and the uber wealthy.

And perhaps, in the past, that was true. But is it really true today? To arts organizations such as the Royal Opera House (ROH) in London the answer is an emphatic “no!” and to set the record straight, the ROH has embarked on “Open Up,” a multi-year project designed to improve accessibility to their theater building. The home of London’s main opera and ballet companies now extends an invitation to everyone, whether they are ticket holders or not.

“We believe that opera and ballet should be experienced by everyone,” states the ROH website, “and our Open Up project has enhanced the experience of coming to the Royal Opera House.”

To do this, ROH hired the design firm Endpoint (based in London and Dubai) and the architecture firm Stanton Williams (London) to create a new wayfinding system—catering to both the long-time subscriber and the casual visitor—to help navigate through the buildings’ public spaces.

“The project opened up the building to a wider audience by creating all-day use areas for working, having a coffee or a meal,” explained Tiffany Lewis, Marketing Manager at Endpoint. “The aim is to make the space feel accessible to different types of visitors who may have been intimidated, previously, by the high-brow nature of the spaces.”

But to open up the Royal Opera House to a variety of visitors—both day and night—is not without its challenges. Today’s “House” is actually a conglomeration of structures and additions built up over the past 160 years. The most iconic structure is the arched iron and glass “Flower Hall” adjacent to the neoclassical theater building which houses the main auditorium. The question is how to successfully direct visitors through the various interior spaces, whether they are planning to attend a ballet performance or simply enjoy a meal.

“The Royal Opera House needed new wayfinding because ‘Open Up’ created a new way of operating in the space,” explains Alison Richings, Endpoint’s Wayfinding Design Director. “Ticket check went from the main entrances to the auditorium doors, and people needed to self-navigate these routes, which was challenging in the existing set up.”

But how exactly to do this? Sometimes the simplest way is the best. In discussions with ROH’s Visitor Experience team, the designers decided to test a “floor-number and door-letter” system to guide ticket holders to each auditorium entrance. For example, entryway “3B” designates Door B on Level 3. With this new system, ticket holders can more easily navigate from ROH’s street entries directly to the auditorium doors without the help of ushers.

Endpoint tested this proposed system with volunteers who did not know the building. The team put temporary overlay signs on two difficult routes and gave the volunteers a ticket inside the entrance lobby, asking them to find their seats. The elapsed time from lobby to seat was just a couple of minutes. The volunteers found the system easy to understand.

“The project created better visual literacy of the public spaces in the building,” stated Lewis, “and helped visitors understand how to move through the building.”

After getting approval from ROH main stakeholders (administrative staff, board members, and major donors), Endpoint and Stanton Williams Architects moved forward with designing and installing the new system.

“Endpoint led the design of wayfinding and worked together with Stanton Williams Architects,” stated Richings. “It’s a process of understanding the design intent from the architects and providing the architect with knowledge around why certain locations are important for wayfinding. We worked together to find a mutually acceptable solution that is user centered.”

The wayfinding text is designed using a simple san serif typeface; easily readable and elegantly understated. The graphics include directional arrows, door number/letters, lifts to the different floor levels, and names of specific rooms and spaces.

ROH is publicly owned and publicly funded through the British government. Yet, the Open Up project was funded completely by private donations. ROH acknowledged these gifts in a respectful way, but also in a public way. The design team created subtle yet engaging donor plaques which are well integrated into the building’s interior spaces without impacting the wayfinding.

So what does ROH say about its new wayfinding system?

“The client said that once opened there had been fewer instances of people not making it to their seats on time for the start of a performance,” said Richings.

Indeed, visitor testing concludes that the journey time from “street to seat” has been reduced to under three minutes. This had previously been one of the largest challenges to hurried ticket holders. And foyer congestion has been reduced as the door numbering system now makes it possible for ushers to check visitor tickets at theatre doors rather than on arrival at the street entrances to the ROH.

Yet aside from a successful design project, perhaps the biggest satisfaction, says Richings, is the collective sense of accomplishment from all those involved.

“Everyone—from the builders to the architects to the lighting designers to the internal teams at the ROH—was invited to an end of development celebration,” said Richings. “Seeing the amazing work that the whole team completed, we celebrated how the wayfinding fitted into this prestigious project and how well received our work was.”

Of course, with the onset of Covid-19, opera and ballet performances at the Royal Opera House have been limited. A few performances are still happening live in October, but others are being streamed. And all the restaurants and bars have been temporarily shuttered. But, once things fully reopen, it will be “on with the show” and Endpoint’s wayfinding system will still be there to help visitors find their way.

In addition to London, Endpoint operates an office in Dubai. Two recently completed projects—the Dubai Design District and City Walk—take wayfinding to a neighborhood scale.

“The strategies for both projects were different,” says Tiffany Lewis, Marketing Manager at Endpoint, “but as both projects were big developments, our wayfinding system had to encompass the whole area.”

Lewis explains more:

The Dubai Design District, known as d3, is the new, purpose-built home for the creative industries in Dubai. The district is fast becoming a tourist destination, as well as being a place of work. First-time visitors coming for meetings and events needed a wayfinding system. As a result, Endpoint developed a strategy that encompassed the whole development area. The wayfinding master plan focused on the entire user journey, from pre-journey planning, the welcome experience, and the provision of accurate and timely information allowing visitors to confidently explore the district.

City Walk is a large mixed-use urban development, built-in phases since 2013, by the firm Meraas, one of Dubai’s leading property developers. The brief for this project was twofold: Bring Meraas’ new destination-based brand identity to life within City Walk, and at the same time, implement a wayfinding strategy to create a single, unified visitor experience across the whole development, strengthening the sense of place for residents, but also aiming to make City Walk the leading “city-within-a-city” destination in Dubai.