Tongji University Signage and Wayfinding

Wayfinding systems overcome language, cultural, and literacy barriers to help users make sense of the built environment. At Tongji University in Shanghai, a unique system designed by the College of Design & Innovation combines symbols and Chinese characters to help students navigate a new facility while building a sense of community identity. The project was a 2014 SEGD Global Design Awards winner. (Enter your work in the 2015 SEGD Global Design Awards!)

Words play a vital role in EGD and also in broadcasting cultural identity. Written words in signs express basic communication needs such as the name, type, or specific function of the space; providing directions; and educating users. But they also fulfill a more important need: expressing the characteristics of a given culture, and defining how that culture is represented visually. This became an important goal when the Tongji University College of Design & Innovation was tasked with developing a signage and wayfinding system for the school's new metalworking studio.

The 5,000m2 studio encompasses three floors and is divided into teaching and work areas. Because the studio and the program are new to students, the design team from the College of Design & Innovation created a series of icons to identify key areas and imbue each space with a unique identity. The unique icons are a combination of Chinese characters and symbols depicting various aspects of the metalworking trade, such as a saw blade for the CNC Milling area and flames for the Heat Treating space. The icons appear on wayfinding signage and in environmental graphics (painted on stairwells, on wall murals, or in vinyl on glass) throughout the studio. Using the pictograms as their foundation, they help students navigate the space safely while building a sense of identity and community pride.

In a modern city such as Shanghai, there is a trend to use less Chinese characters, more symbols, and more English in EGD to meet universal needs. At the same time, the design team believed that the way a culture is perceived is largely determined by how it is presented. As cultural readers and interpreters, we look for characters and symbols that overcome literacy and cultural barriers to help international users make sense of the space and the culture around them.

The design team followed a research-based methodology that included identifying the needs of users, including local students, international students, staff, teachers, and managers. In the initial phase of research, the team studied the space and met with the interior designers, managers, staff, teachers, and students to develop an overview of the design objectives. From the interviews, the team identified several key objectives from the users’ perspective:

• Aid efficient wayfinding through the center
• Provide wayfinding information at key decision points
• Provide information quickly

Specific operational/management requirements were also identified

• Help build the spirit/identity of the space
• Promote each functional area
• Help evacuate students quickly (such as class breaks)
• Promote a creative and innovative teaching and learning process

While the design team's primary goal was to meet the functional and information needs of all users, they also wanted to instill an element of cultural expression in the signage and EGD elements. The second part of the team's research explored the integration of Chinese characters and symbols to translate the visual language of traditional characters into modern sign-making elements. The symbol/characters were designed to be effective at quickly conveying information about the studio spaces and the training provided in each, providing a key wayfinding role as well as contributing to the culture and spirit of the center.

Inspiration came from the ancient Chinese hieroglyph (Richards, 2010). Using Chinese characters as the foundation for the symbol design, the team added modern icons to express the specific functions of the space (i.e., millworking, casting, etc.), similar to the historical use of hieroglyphics. Use of the symbols versus text-based signs helps students (particularly international students) quickly identify functional areas and navigate their way through the huge space.

The team also created two mascots to help tell the story of the space. The characters are in the shape of a screw and nut, appropriate to the engineering orientation of the practice center. Appearing in the discussion areas and stairwells, they add an element of fun and are also colorful and make the environment more vibrant. The characters also appear as safety graphics on windows and glass space partitions, as well as on videos, the center website, and digital signage displays.

In the third part of the project, surveys, interviews, and a prototype experiment were developed to test the symbols’ effectiveness. After the first design version of the symbols was developed, prototype signs were printed and pasted into the space. Thirty students (including local and international students with different backgrounds, but all new to the space) were assigned to find a specific destination using the prototype signage. When they completed their wayfinding experiment, participants were asked to complete a survey discussing their understanding of the character/symbols and whether the signage information matched the wayfinding process. Small discussion groups provided additional insights.

Results from the testing showed that the redesigned characters on signs are powerful coded symbols that communicate a wealth of space and cultural information. It is also apparent that they can break down perceived barriers such as language, culture, and experience among international users. 

For more award-winning projects, see SEGD's Global Design Awards archive.

Find content in your area of interest in the SEGD Xplore Experiential Graphic Design Index.

For the full research paper on this project, visit SEGD's academic journal Communication + Place.


Client: Tongji University

Location: Shanghai

Project Area:  2,700m2

Open Date:  January 2014

Project Budget:  $30,000

Design: College of Design & Innovation, Tongji University

Design Team:  Wu Duan (principal in charge), Gao Bo (creative director), Shi Yin (project manager), Liu Yuyun (wayfinding design), Zhang Chenxi (environmental graphic design), Jiang Wangxi (graphic design)

Consultants:  Tongji Tiandi Institute of Art & Design Innovation (interior design)

Fabrication:  Shanghai Yuequan

Photos:  Liu Yuyun

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