Page C1.2 . 18 February 2009                     
ArchitectureWeek - Culture Department
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Wayfinding design has always attracted women, particularly in the early years when the field offered a much better platform for career advancement and business ownership than more established disciplines, such as architecture. For example, Barbara Stauffacher Solomon and Deborah Sussman (a protegee of Ray and Charles Eames) flourished in California, while Elaine Lustig Cohen and Jane Davis Doggett made early inroads on the East Coast and were later followed by Sue Gould and Ann Dudrow.

Naming Wayfinding

Three writers are largely responsible for popularizing the term wayfinding, which seems to have stuck as the best name to describe both the process and profession dedicated to helping people navigate. In 1960, urban planner and teacher Kevin Lynch coined the term in his landmark book about urban spaces, The Image of the City. Lynch explains that "way-finding" relates to the process of forming a mental picture of one's surroundings based on sensation and memory.

"To become completely lost is perhaps a rather rare experience for most people in the modern city. We are supported by the presence of others and by special way-finding devices: maps, street numbers, route signs, bus placards. But let the mishap of disorientation once occur, and the sense of anxiety and even terror that accompanies it reveals to us how closely it is linked to our sense of balance and well-being."

Twenty years later Romedi Passini wrote Wayfinding in Architecture and probed the subject in greater depth. In 1992 he coauthored Wayfinding: People, Signs, and Architecture with Paul Arthur, a Canadian professor-cum-designer who made a personal mission of advancing the field by reigniting interest in Lynch's observations.

In addition to coining the term signage, Arthur also developed innovative wayfinding projects and eventually became a fellow of the Society for Environmental Graphic Design (SEGD), the international association dedicated to advancing the field. Originally founded by a handful of designers who wished to share their expertise in different fields, SEGD today serves many professionals from architecture, planning, graphic design, exhibition design, product design, and interior design who practice wayfinding.

Over time, environmental graphic design became the preferred umbrella term to describe any communications intended for spatial application, ranging from wayfinding sign programs to branded spaces, exhibitions, and even public art.

SEGD's annual competitions, web site, and publications provide a lively forum for new work to be shared and discussed by the global community of practitioners. Most successful wayfinding designers start with a solid design education that leads to an entry-level position in a major firm, and soon join SEGD to stay abreast of professional and technical developments.

Information Architecture

In 1976 architect Richard Saul Wurman chose "The Architecture of Information" as the theme for an annual convention of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), setting the precedent for a book he produced two decades later, entitled Information Architects (1996).

Individually, the projects discussed in the book are conventional communication vehicles — maps, diagrams, books, sign systems, symbols, and web sites — but presented as a collection, they represent a design specialization that had been maturing for much of the 20th century without a name until Wurman coined information architecture.

In one of his most popular books, Information Anxiety (1989), Wurman warned of the emotionally disturbing effects of information overload at a time when people were captivated by the novelty of personal computing technologies. With 20 years' hindsight, this realization seems obvious, but at the time, the assertion that more information does not equal better understanding had a major impact on designers and the general public.

Wurman's ideas; brilliant books by author-publisher Edward Tufte about the visualization of data, notably his much-heralded Visual Display of Quantitative Information (1983); and the growing public demand for good information design in the public realm have all had a positive trickle-down effect on wayfinding.

Greater emphasis on the need for experienced information designers has in turn validated the profession of the practitioners, who often work in anonymity. Tufte's books, for instance, consistently receive enthusiastic endorsements from mainstream press, such as the New York Times and Scientific American.

While his works are carefully researched and beautifully crafted, they are not just visually appealing but also satisfy an apparent public appetite for arcane content expressed diagrammatically. One of his most popular examples turns a map of the Napoleonic army's doomed march to and from Russia into a dramatic graph depicting the radical reduction in troops due to illness and death, all cleverly revealed in a simple, extraordinary chart.

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David Gibson is an internationally recognized and published wayfinding designer. He is the cofounder and managing principal of Two Twelve, a New York City-based graphic design firm.

This article is excerpted from The Wayfinding Handbook by David Gibson, copyright © 2009, with permission of the publisher, Princeton Architectural Press.



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In the Roppongi district of Tokyo, brightly colored signs communicate directional information in two alphabets.
Photo: Julie Park/ Courtesy Princeton Architectural Press Extra Large Image

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At the Terror Háza Múzeum, in Budapest, Hungary, openings in a deep soffit use light and shadow to spell the building name.
Photo: Nigel Swales/ Courtesy P.A. Press Extra Large Image

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Circulation analysis diagram for the ground-floor level of a large concert hall, including projected circulation paths and sign types.
Image: © Two Twelve Associates Extra Large Image

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Sign programming case study drawings.
Image: © Two Twelve Associates Extra Large Image

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Wayfinding design process chart.
Image: © Two Twelve Associates Extra Large Image

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Participant relationship diagrams for small and medium-sized projects.
Image: © Two Twelve Associates Extra Large Image

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Participant relationship diagram for a large project: a professional football stadium.
Image: © Two Twelve Associates Extra Large Image

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The Wayfinding Handbook by David Gibson.
Image: Princeton Architectural Press Extra Large Image


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