Wayfinding: Following the signs along the way
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Wayfinding: Following the signs along the way

SignIndustry.com connected with fd2s and 22MILES, two companies specializing in wayfinding and the art of getting from here to there in a safe, practical way. Take a look to see if you can get there from here.

By Louis M. Brill

Ever since time immortal when humans left their caves and started to get out and about, they have relied on rudimentary forms of wayfinding for explorers and their fellow tribe members to find their newly discovered food and water resources, and be able to return to their caves. In those days it was all about leaving a mark by setting up a cairn or carved insignia on a tree trunk for others to follow.

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  • Today it's more of the same trail marking, but with more sophisticated tools at hand. Now instead of cairns, we have computers. But still there is the same impulse of people needing assistance in navigating through the landscape and connecting with their intended destinations. So, the art of trail-blazing has become the science of wayfinding.

    As for how the modern wayfinding system is establishing depends on the project at hand and the preferred resources to address that client's wayfinding challenges. In our investigations of new wayfinding design and implementations, SignIndustry.com connected with fd2s and 22MILES, two companies specializing in wayfinding and the art of getting from here to there in a safe, practical way.

    fd2s and The Built Environment
    fd2s (Austin, TX) is a design firm that specializes in developing and implementing wayfinding programs, mostly for academic hospitals and universities around the United States. Company president, Steve Stamper summarized, "We develop integrated wayfinding solutions which includes all the salient touch points that a user may encounter from their home to their final destination."
    Elevator lobby become perfect location for focused wayfinding signage. Overhead sign identifies this locale as 'elevator L,' while nearby wall panel lists out all offices and departments on first floor. Across hallway is a digital interactive screen and next to it is a map dispenser with free maps of hospital campus area.
    photo by: fd2s

    The common sense of wayfinding is often thought of as the front of a building, and hall and door signs that help visitors find their way through an institutional maze of offices, departments and other assorted areas that people need to get to. "Wayfinding isn't always something people think about till they have to go somewhere," says Stamper, "especially if they haven't traveled there before, then it's another story, and that's the story we present."

    In most cases these days, people's wayfinding experience begins at their home computer or smart phone when they access directions to the institution they intend to visit, on either the destination's web site or through google maps, then off to their car or mass transit and away they go.

    "Our mission at fd2s is to develop a completely integrated wayfinding solution," noted Stamper, "that get people from their homes to their destinations with the best available wayfinding tools in hand; getting them to the right location, the right building and finally to the right floor of the office where they're trying to go. Sometimes, as we've all discovered, in our own journeys along the way, the wayfinding signage just doesn't do the job it's supposed to do, and that's where fd2s comes in."

    Wayfinding touch screen station on first floor where additional wayfinmding alerts sign has been integrated into the touch screen panel.
    photo by: fd2s

    Stamper noted that in his company's call to service, he tends to specialize in designing wayfinding programs in just being built buildings or a teaching hospital campus. In other cases, where an institution has a pre-existing wayfinding system his company is called to come in and modernize and update. "In doing so, it's very important for the client to realize that we don't just come in and put up a bunch of signs with arrows pointing towards buildings or hallways, but after careful research offer a concise, fully integrated wayfinding program tailored specifically to the client's existing environment."

    Needs analyst finds a way
    In approaching an institutional request for a new or updated wayfinding solution, Stamper stated that such a project begins with a Wayfinding Experience Audit, which is a thorough evaluation of the institution's already in place wayfinding program. This includes observations of its existing program, testing arterial road arrival / departures for ease of use, and testing on-site existing wayfinding signage for considerations of improvements. In creating the audit, the following components of a wayfinding analysis include:

    • Client's web site directions
      (Proper directional information, printable maps)
    • Telephone switchboard responses
      (Creating a universal script with proper directional information)
    • Roadside signage
      (Turn-offs and route indicators are correctly stated)
    • Hospital grounds
      (Identifying various entrances to building)
    • Interior wayfinding signage
      (Wall and door signs, visitor hand outs)
    • Interactive touch screen displays
      (Proper directional information)

    Got questions? Use interactive way finding screen to not only find an answer, but if you prefer, it can print it out as a set of instructions for what you're looking for.
    photo by: fd2s

    "Often times in an institutional review, through the needs analysis," stated Stamper, "we'll find some parts of an existing wayfinding program are needed to be updated due to the institutions growth and evolution. This evolution is often a big challenge in managing a very large wayfinding program, as people's offices and departments are moved to new locations, floor spaces are redesigned, or a new wing is added, and the current wayfinding managers can't always keep up with all these changes. Soon, some part of their wayfinding program (switchboard directions, maps, or signage) is outdated, people (staff and visitors) not knowing that, are still relying on these now obsolete directional pointers."

    "Many times within our needs analysis investigation in studying a pre-existing wayfinding program, we discover that the client has a 'legacy' system in place that has been built up in layers of signage over the years. Sometimes this becomes a situation of To Much Information (TMI) where the signs have different fonts or design styles, or obsolete signs have not been removed, all of this is culmative and gives the current wayfinding system a look that is not cohesive or consistent."

    One navigational truism of this 'layered sign look,' is that just adding new signs isn't always a guarantee that quantity will make it a better wayfinding program. In this case, sometimes a good wayfinding solution is stripping away an overload of signage so the pertinent directional information you want the visitors to read can rise to the top.

    "As we submit the Needs Analysis report to the client, it also leads to its conclusion, a Master Plan of Potential Project Solutions, which could be anything from redesigning arterial road signage leading to the hospital to developing a new interior building / hall way sign system to technology tools such as wayfinding websites, apps and touch screens.

    In presenting this to the client, there is always the budget - the cost of design and implementation. Sometimes the design / implementation plan exceeds what the institution can afford. In these situations we usually can transform a single project into a 'multi-year' solution where a certain percentage of the Master Plan is implemented each year.

    RENOLIT Calendered Vinyl - Top performance for various applications

    Before: Original outdoor sign post on Parnassus Hospital grounds. Basic wayfinding information is still relevant, but exterior sign face shows its age from continual weather exposure
    After: The exterior sign posts are fabricated aluminum cabinets on an internal aluminum structural frame. The graphics are digital prints on vinyl and protected with an over laminate. When there is a change in content, the faces can be removed and replaced with new graphics.
    Depending on how much the sign faces could be seen, all sides of the kiosk were utilized for information (maps) and way-finding. The maps and wayfinding panels were also flipped on one side of the kiosk to accommodate wheelchair bound user, i.e. ADA and equal access to all information.
    photo by: fd2s

    One important part of planning a new wayfinding solution is an integrated and redundant use of names and titles of offices and departments which are the same throughout the entire wayfinding program. For example, when you identify the Diagnostic Imaging location, that name / title needs to be consistent within all institutional wayfinding resources: on the web, on its maps, on its touch screens, etc.

    Depending on the visitor's preferred method of how they want to connect with wayfinding information, Stamper noted that he configures its implementation with several types of overlapping wayfinding media platforms for the visitors' on-site navigational needs. "In terms of putting a wayfinding program together, a well defined system should be redundant and overlapping to address different age groups and different ways people acquire information. Some people prefer print, often they like to see written instructions, others prefer maps. And still other people prefer digital interactive displays."

    University of California Medical Center finds a new way
    The University of California San Francisco Medical Center's city-wide medical center is over 100 years old, with several specialized campus hospital locations spread throughout the city. The Medical Center has an active daily population of patients and visitors traveling to any one of these buildings, some for their first time, and usual working through the classic formula of, "they're late and roaming the campus grounds searching for a specific destination, and not sure how to get through the maze to get to their appointment."

    Wayfinding panel show off UCSF - Parnassus hospital campus area.
    photo by: fd2s

    Once commissioned by UCSF, fd2s developed a comprehensive wayfinding master plan for the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center's Parnassus Heights and Mount Zion sites. Each of these sites included hundreds of thousands of square feet spread throughout several buildings on multiple city blocks. And amidst all this acreage was to be established a 21st century wayfinding system ranging from print signage, all the way to interactive digital touch screens.

    "The challenge for designing the UCSF wayfinding system was of a classical nature," says Stamper, "of lots of buildings to identify, lots of offices to find, lots of front doors to name, and the job of sorting this all out and getting patients and visitors to these various destinations the easiest way possible. What was found in reviewing the UCSF-Parnassus legacy wayfinding signage were three or four overlapping generations of wayfinding signs.

    Inevitably, stated Stamper, "we found the best solution was to remove all the old wayfinding signs (basically strip it down to the bare walls) and start fresh, and install the new wayfinding system as the only sign system available to staff, patients and visitors."

    Another challenge was that the hospital served a vast multi-ethnic population that spoke (a rough estimate) at least 127 languages. The three most common languages other than English, were Spanish, Mandarin and Russian. At this point to simplify things all signage was in English, with possibilities of adding other languages over time.

    In total, over a period of four and half years, between both campuses, fd2s transformed 17 campus buildings with a revised navigational program that included the following visitor and patient wayfinding resources: wall directional/maps, Pathway markers (wall and floor mounted), custom interactive touch screens, improved web-based direction to site, complete with downloadable maps and on-site freestanding visitor hand out map kiosks. As for signage, there were at least 1,200 wayfinding signs installed across the two campuses, which included everything from free-standing building identification signage to interior corridor and ceiling hung identification and directional signage.

    22MILES and Delray Beach wayfinding
    In a different and smaller scale, but equally important wayfinding solution, a unique outdoor digital application was recently implemented by 22MILES (San Jose, CA), a touch screen solutions vendor specializing in multi-touch software for businesses covering a wide range of industries including retail, restaurants, hospitals and trade shows. The company is mainly a provider of unique multi-touch applications, using their existing software platforms to custom design multi-touch solutions for their customers.
    22MILES wayfinding system was installed as a multi-touch based display showing off a downtown map of Delray Beach with identification of its different stores and restaurants along Atlantic Avenue, the main street of Delray Beach.
    photo by: 22MILES

    The 22MILES Interactive Wayfinding Digital Signage system according to 22MILES marketing specialist, Richard Tower, is an off-the-shelf product that incorporates static map content with the dynamic presence of multi-touch, and complete with connectivity to smart phones, allowing users to isolate specific wayfinding content and e-mail it to themselves. "Furthermore, our wayfinding software is very flexible as it also offers opportunities to include interactive advertisements, advanced promotions with send-to-mobile capability, event/activity calendars, and many other convenient modules.

    As a first in the United States, 22MILES in conjunction with partner Blueweb Mobile Media (Boynton Beach, FL), a content provider specializing in mobile advertising collaborated in developing a complete outdoor digital wayfinding system installed on location in Delray Beach, Florida.

    Delray Beach is a natural for an outdoor wayfinding setup as it's a major tourist stop-over and filled with galleries, shops and boutiques, art events and festivals. Delray Beach also offers the Delray Beach Tennis Center, and its historic Colony Hotel. So for a wayfinding strategy Delray Beach is rich in tourist spots, festivities and special destinations to check out, thus offering great tourist related content to be layered into its overall map and calendar of activities.

    The Downtown Delray Wayfinder menu offers more than finding local business and dining places, but also offers insights into nightlife opportunities, weather and news, helping visitors to truly find their way through Delray Beach.
    photo by: Blueweb Mobile Media

    The Delray Beach wayfinding system consisted of a single LCD screen (47 inch diagonal) that was placed street level by the front window of the town's library for use by its ongoing tourist population coming to visit the town. The window placement satisfied several other equally important concerns including security, as the screen was behind the window, and vandalism, as the library window made the wayfinding display graffiti proof, but still functional as a multi-touch interface.

    22MILES wayfinding system, according to CEO Joey Zhao, was installed as a multi-touch based display showing off a downtown map of Delray Beach with identification of its different stores and restaurants along Atlantic Avenue, the main street of Delray Beach. Within the collaboration of developing the wayfinding display, Blueweb was the content provider, taking the original 22MILES wayfinding software and integrating it with specific media content from Delray Beach businesses that were placed on the downtown map. Overall, the wayfinding software offered the following services: some typically found on a google map, such as an aerial map of Delray Beach, the streetscape view, a weather display and a live news ticker, and on a more detailed level, interior store views and service offerings.

    "Essentially our outdoor wayfinding display functioned like a giant smart phone or iPad display," stated Zhao, and functions as both a display and an information service.

    From a multi-touch point of view, the screen users merely touch the screen to enlarge the view or push or pull the screen image to change the map view to a different part of the downtown cityscape. One could think of it as a turbo-charged google map, but offering detailed information features down to a storefront interior level. With the map in place, one could select a map icon, for example a restaurant, get a picture of its interior dining area, look at a menu, and make a decision if that's where they might want to eat.

    From a wayfinding view, the system is designed to cater to out-of-town visitors and tourists in giving them town specific information about all the stores, gift shops and restaurants on Atlantic Avenue including what's inside of them, and from that, helping them to make decisions about where to shop or visit.

    With one display in place there is a plan to install at least eight more displays throughout the downtown area. Already the wayfinding display has been big hit, both with locals and tourists, to a point where other Floridian cities are looking at versions of the Delray Beach system as a possibility with an identical function in their downtown areas.

    As more people move around an ever-changing cityscape where streets and the general architectural environment is forever being retrofitted, refurbished, rebuilt and just built, wayfinding has come to play an important part in assisting people as get around that environment. Between Google maps and improved wayfinding signage where it needs to be, getting lost is becoming less of an option these days.

    Louis M. Brill is a journalist and consultant for high-tech entertainment and media communications. He can be reached at (415) 664-0694 or louisbrill@sbcglobal.net

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