Everywhere, A Sign

I love signs, and I love signage. Lovely Wife will tell you that, if I can be said to have a photographic “theme” in my travels, it is of signs. And I particularly love wayfinding signs — I do not claim to be an expert on them, by any stretch of the imagination, but I do love me a well-designed, well-executed wayfinding system.

This is a relatively new interest for me. Predictably, it started in hospitals, where I noticed that no one could agree on best practices for indicating where people should go or how to get there. A mishmash of dots, lines, arrows, wall-mounts, hand-written, laser-printed signs (with maps added in for good use) has come to be the accepted standard in a lot of places. Most people find this frustrating, yet when faced with a proper, intelligently conceived wayfinding system, they immediately relax — even though they don’t know why.

It never occurred to me that there would be a whole field of study dedicated to the subject, but of course there is; I first encountered it in Jain Malkin’s Hospital Interior Architecture, a 4.2 pound hardcover monster of a book that can be used to fend off aggressive committee members in meetings who don’t believe in its contents. The content is — well, anyone who works in a hospital should probably at least look through a copy, if only so you can see some of the achingly beautiful designs that are out there (and gnash your teeth in misery at the world around you). Malkin has written a whole host of papers on the subject of wayfinding; I won’t link to them, but I will point you to a paper from the Center for Health Design (warning: a PDF lives at the end of that link), a couple of case studies from Corbin Design, some of which I like better than others, and the most bizarre wayfinding I’ve ever seen in a hospital. This last is the signage for the Katta Public General Hospital, the exterior design of which is really weird in and of itself. This is Japan, after all; what did you expect?

(As an aside, likely the closest example of good hospital wayfinding to local readers is probably Vancouver General Hospital, particularly the Pattison pavilion. Unless they’ve changed something dramatically in the last 3+ years since I spent any time there, I’ve never been lost in the new parts of the hospital. The old parts… well, we’ll leave that for another day. The Vancouver Island hospitals are universally awful in their wayfinding systems, and that’s all I’m going to say about that.)

In the Center for Health Design paper I linked above, Barbara Huelat asks why it is that hospital signage systems suck so badly, while airport ones as a general rule do not. Says Huelat,

Successful airport wayfinding relies on the process called progressive disclosure, which provides only enough information necessary to get the visitor to the next decision-making point. For example, as travelers approach the airport on the highway, airport wayfinding provides them only with information regarding the next exit. Then, once the travelers have exited, the signs provide information concerning parking locations and drop-off areas. Airports do not provide parking information on the highway signs.

Hospitals rarely employ this model, and provide too much information at inappropriate locations. Signs should direct hospital visitors with the same ease as travelers to and through airports. While signs frequently identify hospitals from highways, airport-like signs should continue to direct people after exiting the highway. The progressive disclosure method should direct people to correct buildings, hospital parking and drop-off areas. Once in the buildings, the method should direct wayfinders to the next decision-making intersection. Each sign should offer no more than three possible directional options.

You probably won’t have to spend more than about 30 seconds of brain power thinking about how many wayfinding systems you routinely run into that break most, if not all, of those simple guidelines.

What about those airport signs? Lots of people have the same affectation as I do, and, oh, there’s loads of stuff out there about the design and development of various airport wayfinding systems. This guy argues strongly in favor of following the existing conventions, which the hospital world might be wise to consider adopting. Much work went into the rebranding of Dusseldorf airport, and this is the link that I really wanted to post, a showcase of 20 or so wayfinding systems in airports around the world. Normal people would have just posted the link and left it at that, but for some reason I instead felt compelled to write an 800+ word entry on the subject. Freak!

(Also: I would be remiss if I did not mention the most alienating airport in the world.)