Decisions, Decisions: How We Find Our Way

“Wayfinding is a form of spatial problem solving.”
—Paul Arthur, Wayfinding: People, Signs & Architecture, 1992

Most of us have experienced the frustration that comes from being in a new environment, rushed and unable to find our way. But how often do we experience a new environment that feels intuitive, as if each decision in the journey is made clear before the question “where do I go?” or “which way do I turn?” is posed?

Making our way through a new environment requires both active and passive decision making. When we become aware of our journey (active decision making) it’s usually because we’ve missed a turn, are running late, or becoming uncertain. In contrast, passive decision making emerges organically as visual cues are identified. This process develops our mental map – cognitive models of our surroundings – from environmental features in the landscape such as architecture, roads, paths, and prominent landmarks.

When the relationship between elements of an environment are clear, our mental image of the place is comprehensive and our ability to navigate is made more intuitive. When the relationship between elements of an environment are hard to interpret, our mental map is incomplete. When this happens, signs serve as important clarifying devices that help to fill in the gaps between existing elements, augmenting the environment to strengthen the overall sense of place and direction.

Contrary to the way many wayfinding programs are designed, this process starts long before visitors arrive “on site”. Our mental map is informed by our past experience, extending to home and work, and is aided through tools like Google Maps. As a visitor approaches the site, prominent cues (boulevards, entrances/gateways, landmarks) confirm our expectations of the environment and signal our transition to the next stage of the journey.

When a visitor arrives on site, we continue to orient ourselves via landmarks. “Turn left at the large golden tree” or “when you see the neon arch, you’re almost there” might be typical of directions given to visitors. Inside a facility, this process continues. “The washrooms are located just left of the Student’s Union office” is another form of social direction-giving that happens repeatedly.

Our approach to wayfinding considers both passive and active decision making. By understanding the relationship between how we understand the world and the physical environment itself, we’re able to develop wayfinding systems that are effective and respond to real world needs. More than signs, it begins with a mental map of our environment formed from architectural details, landscape features, visual/audio cues, lighting, and public art.