Finding Ways to Teach Wayfinding

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


Where do we start?

This is the fundamental question we face as designers and design educators on a daily basis, regardless of the project or topic at hand. As a multidisciplinary designer, teaching architecture, interior design, and graphic design , 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 place-making. 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 the classroom?

Obviously, we leave the classroom and look around.