Wayfinding is the process of navigating to a destination by using cues in the built environment, such as signs, landmarks, maps, symbols, colours and other communications. The elements of the physical space are classified as paths, edges (barriers), districts (regions), nodes (intersections) and landmarks. They do not exist independently but overlap and ultimately orient and guide people.
Flooring design can effectively be employed to establish these wayfinding elements. Flooring can be used to create well-structured paths to lead occupants through a space and to make navigation at intersections or decision points more manageable. It can also denote and subdivide a space into districts with a distinct set of visual attributes that provide additional orientation cues. Regions that are often defined by visual appearance and that set apart distinct building functions, such as a waiting area or nurses’ station, can be established using flooring design.
Wayfinding design theory considers not only a building occupant’s ability to understand the spatial characteristics as they move through a space but also their behaviour and ability to perceive, select and understand information in their environment. A well-designed environment encourages comprehension of the setting, aids in navigation and provides a sense of direction and orientation.
There are four principles of wayfinding: orientation to determine a person’s position with respect to nearby landmarks and the required destination; route selection that will lead to the desired destination; route control, which confirms the individual is following the selected way; and recognition of destination when reached.
Wayfinding principles are based on cognition or the knowledge and information the brain acquires, stores, retrieves and manipulates, which helps with navigation. This knowledge is fed to the brains by the five senses — sight, sound, touch, taste and smell — as well as others, such as temperature, knowledge of body parts, pain, balance and vibration. These senses interact and work together with other cognitive systems responsible for thinking, imagery, memory, learning, language, reasoning and problem solving. Cognition, especially spatial cognition, is an essential part of wayfinding as it helps orient, navigate and perceive information.
The brain stores spatial knowledge through a process known as cognitive mapping. A cognitive map is the result of psychological processes through which people code, store, remember and decode acquired knowledge about elements, locations, distances and directions or the general pattern of the surrounding environment. Cognitive maps are based on imagery like landmarks and user factors, such as culture, which may vary based on individual and group experiences and perceptions.
The understanding of visual perceptions and senses has been influenced by psychology and, in particular, the works of Max Wertheimer, the founder of Gestalt psychology. In Gestalt psychology, the laws of organization explain how the brain attempts to simplify and organize complex designs. According to these laws, the brain subconsciously arranges individual elements into whole systems or patterns to help better understand the environment. By perceiving the whole system, wayfinding can provide valuable and necessary information that’s needed to navigate and differentiate environments.
Wertheimer formulated the basic laws of visual perception, along with those for closure and continuation; however, over the years, new organizational laws have been introduced, including similarity, symmetry and order, proximity and figure-ground. These laws can be easy to incorporate into a design project.
Let’s explore some examples as they apply to wayfinding.
When elements look alike, building occupants naturally group them together as part of a pattern or group. For this reason, designers can use similarity to create a single design feature, illustration or message out of multiple separate elements. For example, colour and shape can be used to tie design aspects visually together.
Continuation refers to the eye’s natural tendency to follow continuous figures like lines, paths or curves. This is a great way to draw the eye toward a focal point or aid in navigation. Conversely, when continuation is not followed, the eye is not drawn to the destination. This concept can visually shorten or break up a space, such as a long hallway.
The benefits of wayfinding are many but probably the most important is the positive impact it has on the human experience. People patronize spaces that are enjoyable, easy to navigate and convenient. They do not gravitate to environments that cause confusion, frustration or negative experiences. Wayfinding can also improve accessibility, which is especially important to those with limited physical mobility or sensory impairments.
Notably, these experiences can impact the bottom line. Whether a hospital or shopping centre, a positive experience may mean a referral, additional business or a repeat customer, while a wayfinding challenge may reflect negatively on how people view a company, organization or brand.
Positive experiences can also result in more efficient business operations, demonstrated by less missed appointments and late arrivals, and doctors or other healthcare service providers are better able to maintain a daily schedule. Wayfinding can also improve circulation within a building, resulting in visitor and staff time savings, as well as improve concentration.
Wayfinding can positively impact safety, too. Emergency situations can trigger stress and confusion that can lead to quick and impaired wayfinding decisions.
Amy A. Costello is a sustainability manager at Armstrong Flooring, a leading global manufacturer of flooring products. Amy is a licensed professional engineer who holds both Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and WELL accredited professional certifications. She chairs the ASTM sustainable manufacturing subcommittee and serves on the WELL material advisory. Amy can be reached at [email protected].