How Do We Explore Cities?

We have all been caught in the situation of being lost in unfamiliar places. How do we feel at that moment? Are we lost, intimidated, flustered or suddenly running late? Do we have tunnel vision searching for resources or knowledgeable people directing us where to go? Then, a sigh of relief occurs, as we stumble upon a wayfinding signage display (Kreik, 2013).

Origin of Wayfinding

Through history, humanity has always needed direction to indicate its origins and destinations, whether to go back to its shelters or to indicate a certain route for hunting. The need for signs and wayfinding devices has always been present, as long as there were spatial activities taking place (i.e. always). Signs and markers were used by humans throughout thousands of years but the process has evolved from simple cave and wall drawings to more complex signs.  With the evolution of cities and urban environments, human wayfinding expanded and more efficient ways were created to direct people through more complex environments (

A 1000 year old petroglyph in Utah Courtesy of http://www.mediabyjohn

A 1000 year old petroglyph in Utah
Courtesy of http://www.mediabyjohn

Ancient Greek used signs to direct travelers Courtesy of

Ancient Greek used signs to direct travelers
Courtesy of

Changes in Style

The role of wayfinding devices doesn’t stop at directing people; it also characterizes a place and gives it identity. Architects and planners began to call upon artists to help make signs and wall posts more aesthetic. The first to coin the term “wayfinding” was Kevin Lynch in his book The Image of the City (1960). It was a recognizable contribution to the profession, about how people understand and interact with the surrounding environment (Lynch, 1960).

Medieval Europe was the birthplace of street signs Courtesy of

Medieval Europe was the birthplace of street signs
Courtesy of

What is Wayfinding?

You are here, but how do you know where here is? Municipal wayfinding systems not only direct visitors to destinations, but also serve as a teaching tool that educates the visitors on the boundaries, destinations and key features of the urban environment. This creates a “legible city” where wayfinding and identification elements support the overall urban structure and experience.

Kevin Lynch developed the legible city concept and suggested that all cities have a specific vocabulary that residents and visitors can “read” in the streets, landmarks, nodal areas and unique districts. Designers discovered that by utilizing a system of gateways, signage and streetscape elements, they could enhance the legibility of the respective city. Today, the Lynch method of testing legibility through personal cognitive maps has shown the effectiveness of successful municipal wayfinding systems. London, England has the largest municipal wayfinding system in the world, referred to as a “legible city” (signage foundation, 2013).

Legible London  Courtesy of

Legible London
Courtesy of

Wayfinding is typically represented in an iconic structure that combines the work of planners, graphic designers and architects through cartography. These structures are commonly found on campuses, in airports or along streetscapes. Over the years, wayfinding principles and techniques have evolved in conjunction with advancing environments. Trends in wayfinding are shifting from traditional graphic techniques to modern approaches that include advanced technology (Kreik, 2013).

Successful Wayfinding Principles

Wayfinding systems mean different things to different people based on their experience. Wayfinding can be experienced on a highway, in a park or in a pedestrian mall. In another way, wayfinding is found in public or private landscapes and interiors. It helps users to better understand their surroundings. A successful wayfinding system in urban areas has many moving parts that fir together. To structure how all these elements work, it is important to look at the individual elements as a series of layers that a visitor encounters when experiencing an urban environment. This encounter begins at the vehicular edges of the region and continues into downtown. Finally, it culminates in pedestrian main streets and destinations. While all these layers of experience do not need to be clearly linked through design, successful systems utilize common design cues including color, topography, shape, logo, material and nomenclature.

Areas identification (Art District) Courtesy of

Areas identification (Art District)
Courtesy of

These signage structures allow people to quickly digest and comprehend any given environment. Conveying clear direction can be a feat, and wayfinding allows designers to orchestrate navigational experiences.

One of the major roles of these signage systems is to turn the visiting experience into a pleasant one, especially for those who are unfamiliar with the environment. Therefore, it is important to know when signage systems are needed. Here are some reasons we use signs: the complexity of new cities, their wide expansions, the transit systems that appeared with the modern-age ease of mobility, the expansion of the tourism industry, and simply the lack of information available to users within the urban space.

First, for a wayfinding system design to be effective, it should be regarded as separate entity, but should function as an integrated part of the environment. Second, designers should understand the wayfinding principles and a graphic standard should be set based on guidelines addressing style, sixe of characters, uniform colors, shape standards functions and consistent placement of signs (Gibson, 2009).

Commercial landmark Courtesy of

Commercial landmark
Courtesy of

One of the most renowned wayfinding precedents is the work of Massimo Vignelli, creator of NYC’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) subway signage and mapping. Vignelli has guided literally billions of subway riders via his largely bolded Helvetic typography and sharp colors presented with clear shapes and arrows.

NYC Metropolitan Transportation Authority  Courtesy of

NYC Metropolitan Transportation Authority
Courtesy of

Another example was created by F1RSTDESIGN as a means of wayfinding for Zollverein Park in Essen, Germany. Their graphic design pushed wayfinding a step further by transforming a typical site map into a three-dimensional model. Symbols and text on the model act as a preview for signs and indicators that users will see as they travel through the industrial landscape. This approach allows users to study and interpret a site from any given angle. The model also translates the scale of the built environment which is often over looked when reading two-dimensional maps.

Zollverein Park (Essen-Germany) Courtesy of

Zollverein Park (Essen-Germany)
Courtesy of

Technological Systems in Wayfinding

Nowadays, wayfinding systems do not solely rely on static signage systems like physical elements present in the landscape. Electronic and dynamic media are becoming very valuable as wayfinding tools. The advantage of this type of media is that it can be easily updated according to the changes in the surrounding environment. The way the people today interact with global positioning systems (GPS) via their smartphones is one of the latest wayfinding examples.

Digital wayfinding  Courtesy of

Digital wayfinding
Courtesy of

Digital wayfinding  Courtesy of

Digital wayfinding
Courtesy of

As a conclusion, the wayfinding experience in the urban space is influenced by a variety of aspects present in the environment. These aspects vary between cognitive, physical and virtual. The problem is that traditional wayfinding systems do not suffice alone in forming a place’s image and in helping people navigate it. However, with the difference in individual potentials, a need for personalized or customized wayfinding systems available on a portable device has become urgent. Today, visitors plan their journey in advance and indicate where they want to go and how to reach their destinations, even before visiting. Consequently, the role of designers in the wayfinding sub-field is to use these aspects to foster spatial information presented to the visitor. This information can be physically present in the environment, or it can be presented as additional aiding tools such as signs, Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) or virtual systems. In this way, users will have clearer understanding of their surrounding through new wayfinding strategies.


Written by: Riham Nady

Edited by: Aiysha Alsane



– Gibson, David. (2009). “The Wayfinding Handbook: Information Design for Public Places”. Princeton Architectural Press, New York.

– Kreik, Colin. (2013). “Olmsted Scholar Feature: The Evolution of Wayfinding”.

– Lynch, Kevin. (1960). “The Image of the City”. The Joint Center for Urban Studies. United States of America.

– signage foundation. (2013). “Urban Wayfinding: Planning and Implementation Manual”.

– Wayfinding and cognitive Maps official website (2007). “the history of wayfinding”.
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