You Are Here

You Are Here

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.  – Emerson

Wayfinding is something we often take for granted because good wayfinding is intuitive and self-navigable. Great wayfinding actually shapes our whole experience and makes us feel more engaged- more connected.

Wayfinding simply encompasses all the ways in which people orient themselves and navigate from place to place.


For millennia humans have needed a way to show and direct each other where to go- whether it was to an abundant fishing hole or a generous hunting ground. The oldest existing maps are preserved on Babylonian clay tablets from 2500 BC. In fact, our hippocampus is one of the most ancient parts of the brain, and plays a central role in learning, memory, and wayfinding.


Photo credit: bdesham Flickr

Figure the Tahitians who set sail in canoes and using their strong knowledge of the tides and star positions, they were able to plot the voyage to Hawaii.  Wayfinding on the sea also required strength and competence and the ability to sense the subtle changes in the sea and air as well as sensing the moods of their crew in a very complex, inter-related process.

Today that visceral intuition is done for us as our wayfinding devices (in the form of navigation systems) are high-tech, complex modern marvels and accurate within a couple of feet. Everywhere we walk or drive signs tell us where to go. We’re more likely to need to be pointed to a restroom than a new archipelago.

In blog dedicated to wayfinding, John Williamson writes:

As more people became literate, signs written in a verbal language became increasingly important to society. This really became important when mankind entered the mass transportation age. The ability to move people in mass created numerous problems not just in streets and byways, but in buildings and structures where people visited and conducted business. Eventually, as our cities and towns became mega cities and metropolises, architects and city planners had to call upon the services of designers as well as behaviorists to help decipher the best plan to direct the masses.

Modern Wayfinding and EGD

Fast forward to 1960 Kevin Lynch’s classic book, The Image of the City, that inspired a generation of architects, planners, and designers to envision urban spaces as a functioning whole and laid the foundation for modern wayfinding design. Environmental Graphic Design (EGD) emerged in the early 1970’s as its own discipline, embracing many design disciplines including graphic design, architecture, industrial design and landscape architecture. Practitioners in this field are concerned with the visual aspects of wayfinding, communicating identity and brands, shaping a sense of place, and information design.

Imagine being late for a plane and trying to navigate through a poorly mapped airport to find the right concourse and gate. Your blood pressure rises, you begin to breathe heavy as panic grips you- or walking long distances inside a hospital and exhausting yourself as a result of illogical numbering or poor signage.   Therein lies the irony – when wayfinding is good you don’t “see” it but when its bad there are many negative psychological effects- disorientation, frustration, and stress.

For The Fun Of It

Ever heard of letterboxing?  Letterboxes are virtually everywhere in the United States (and other parts of the world) and letterboxing is a good exercise in orienting.  Consider trying it with your kids or nieces and nephews. I  had no idea this even existed until last night and its origin can be traced to England in 1854, according to Wikipedia.

Letterboxing is an outdoor hobby that combines elements of orienteering, art, and puzzle solving. Letterboxers hide small, weatherproof boxes in publicly accessible places (like parks)[1] and distribute clues to finding the box in printed catalogs, on one of several web sites, or by word of mouth. Individual letterboxes usually contain a notebook and a rubber stamp.[2] Finders make an imprint of the letterbox’s stamp, either on their personal notebook or on a postcard, and leave an impression of their personal stamp on the letterbox’s “visitors’ book” or “logbook” — as proof of having found the box and letting other letterboxers know who has visited. 

Happy trails.

By: Amy Blanco

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