Michaela Skiles

From Signs to Minds: Wayfinding Design and Mental Maps

Michaela Skiles

When following directional signs through a new area, how much do people actually learn about the environment around them? How could you design directional signs to help people learn more? This study examines how the design of directional signs influences spatial learning, by presenting information in different spatial perspectives.

Three sign types were evaluated: Separate (directional arrows, with roads and towns on different signs), Combined (simple arrow diagrams of the intersection, with roads and towns on one sign), and Cartographic (a highly simplified map). Participants viewed a sequence of signs as if driving through a fictional environment, making turn choices according to assigned goals, and then completed a mapping task. After a second sign viewing, this time without turn decisions, participants repeated the mapping task.

For the first mapping task, participants who viewed the Cartographic signs produced more accurate maps than those viewing the Separate or Combined signs. These results suggest that guide signs with simple maps can help people incidentally learn about the spatial configuration of the environment. There was no significant difference between groups for the second mapping task, which suggests that when people are aware that they will be tested, sign type does not affect how much they can learn.

This study not only has implications for the design of directional signs, but is also an example of linking research in spatial cognition with wayfinding as a design discipline. Carried out as an undergraduate thesis, this study is evidence of an effective interdisciplinary approach to design education.

From Signs to Minds

Jury Award
From Signs to Minds, Wayfinding Design and Mental Maps, Middlebury College, Michaela Skiles

How could wayfinding signage be designed to not only help people get from one place to another, but also help them learn about the layout of their environment along the way? Michaela Skiles, a student at Middlebury College (Middlebury, Vt.) investigated this question through a two-stage project of design and evaluation, completed over the course of her undergraduate geography thesis and published in the Cartographic Journal.

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