Wherever we find ourselves, we like to know where we’re going next — and more importantly, how to get there. Have you ever been desperate for the toilet in a shopping centre, only to find yourself locked in a maze of contradictory signs pointing you in several different directions? And recently, have you had trouble navigating your way around familiar spaces that have suddenly introduced new social distancing procedures? I know it’s thrown me off a few times!
There are many areas and buildings that are so vast that a few signs simply won’t cut it; imaginative and leading-edge design is needed to make these spaces easy to navigate — and that’s where wayfinding comes in. Wayfinding is an often unseen art, taken for granted by most, but experienced by each and every one of us, whether we realise it or not.
Alison Richings leads the Wayfinding Design Team at Endpoint in London. Not only did she help write the NHS guidelines on wayfinding, but she’s also worked on projects like Heathrow’s Terminal Five, the Royal Opera House, and Harrods. And she’s my guest today.
Chapter 1: Finding Your Way
Have you ever entered a building, only to be hit with a feeling of anxiety or irritation? We’re so much more affected by our surroundings than we realise, and it only takes a split second for us to decide how we feel about a space. So if we’ve experienced this, then so too will our characters. Try placing them in an unfamiliar setting and see how they react. They might surprise you, because as it turns out, every single one of our senses comes into play when we’re getting to grips with a new space.
Alison: Many years ago, when the term ‘wayfinding’ wasn’t really thought through, people thought, “Well, whatever our issue is, we can solve it by putting science in place.” But actually, there have been many studies over the years that show that wayfinding is more than a case of being able to put signs in the right place, and for people to be able to interact with those signs effectively. We use all of the things that we can see, hear, smell and feel to find our way. We’ve all been in that situation where we’re looking for somewhere, we’re not that sure of where it is, and we hear something in the distance, or we see something in the distance that makes us think, “Oh, I think I’m on the right track.” And that doesn’t come from the use of a sign. Wayfinding is about everything that we do to navigate.
I mean, we rely very heavily on sight. One of the good ways to explain that is, if you think about your own home — which we all know inside out, upside down, back to front — and if I said to you, “You need to go and find a candle in the kitchen drawer,” you would be able to do that successfully without any kind of signage whatsoever. But that same environment that we know so well, if it’s 10 o’clock at night and there’s a power cut, and suddenly you’re thrown into complete darkness, finding that candle in the kitchen drawer suddenly becomes actually a much, much more difficult and demanding challenge. And although that seems like a trivial example, it’s an example of how much we rely on what we can see.
Mark: And often, when we do a journey for the very first time, we don’t remember that much of it. When we’ve done it time after time, we know where the house with the white picket fence is. We know which is the gate that’s hanging off its hinges. That kind of visual memory comes back to us, does it?
Alison: Yes. So it’s all about the creation of mental models. So what we do in our heads is we create a visualisation of the journey. So, as you say, when you’ve done a journey a lot of times, you have already got those visuals in your head, and you know when you get to certain points in that journey because of those mental models that you’ve created. Where we come unstuck, of course, is where we do that journey for the first time, and we don’t have any kind of mental knowledge of what that journey is going to be like. That’s when we need all those extra cues that we can get to be able to successfully find our way.
Mark: And is it the lack of a series of cues that may lead to anxiety, if you’re in a space for the first time and you can’t quite find your way?
Alison: Yes. Well, it’s a number of things. It is the lack of those cues in your head and that mental model. It’s also your emotions and your state of mind. Being lost in a shopping centre for a lot of people is fairly delightful! And therefore, feeling lost in that scenario for those people is not really a problem, and they’re completely comfortable with the fact that they will eventually come across what they need. Put somebody in the middle of a forest, or put somebody even in a situation that’s familiar, but is more kind of run by emotions, like you’re on your way to a job interview… it may be in a part of town that you know really, really well, but equally that extra pressure and your emotional response and your stress affects your ability to navigate, because obviously we navigate through those cognitive systems, but we also rely heavily on our emotional state. And that’s why things like hospital wayfinding is about providing more and more information, because people are in an emotional state that they can’t take that information in so easily.
Mark: That’s very interesting. I think, and I mentioned this to you when we chatted, there are some buildings that I always get lost in, and I don’t know whether it’s a case of me being that classic guy, refusing to read the manual, “I’ll figure it out myself.” And I’m sure if I just stopped and thought about it rationally and logically, it would make perfect sense as to why things are structured the way they are, but there are certain things that you can’t do to certain buildings. So it’s not like you’re designing it from scratch. I know you’ve done some work on theatres and exhibition centres, but if I think about the South Bank, that could wind me up into a frenzy, trying to find my way around the National Theatre.
Alison: Well, I mean, that’s true, because there are three things that have to come together for good wayfinding. Only one of those three things is us and our ability to find our way. The other two things are the information that’s provided. So that is about signs, maps, and those graphical systems that get put in place to help you. But the third, and I think a lot of people would say one of the most important, is the environment. So how has that place been designed, and how has it changed over time? Because of course there are a lot of cases of buildings that start out as one thing, and then morphs and changes, which can make it easier to find your way, or much harder. And certainly, examples like the South Bank, which have various levels, different ways in and out that you can never quite remember, they’ve worked really hard over the years to make those environments feel more legible to people.
Mark: I’ve thought a lot about this in recent weeks as we have adjusted to the use of space in lockdown, particularly in shops. And I think about the local corner shop. Previously, you used to be able to go down whichever aisle you wanted, in whichever order you wanted. Now, there is a very clear entry and exit system, and certain things are now one way. And it can be quite difficult if you’ve used a space conventionally, for the want of a better phrase, to now have to use it differently. I’ve found that, personally, it’s taken me quite some time to adjust. Is that because I’m having to unpick those mental models that I’ve already built up?
Alison: Yes. I mean, on the one hand, it’s about unpicking the model. I think if you think about the classic example of the one-way system in use is Ikea stores. So, they are enormous spaces, and they were designed for everybody to go around one route. And that way, you got the most out of it, and they got the most out of you. The issue with that is, is that for some people it’s just too much, it’s too long a route, it’s too difficult. And that’s why they introduced the shortcuts into the Ikea shop layouts. And that’s because, for some people, they just have what is partly an innate desire to break the rules and rebel. There is a little bit of that in all of us, and certainly with supermarkets and their one-way systems. You see quite a few people going, “Oh, do I have to go down that aisle? Is that the rule?” and kind of seeing how they can push it. But, also, it’s because sometimes it can be overwhelming to be forced into a space to do things in one particular way.
And so, it is all about how you normally behave in that environment. And particularly food shopping, we try to tell ourselves that we’re not heavily influenced by the supermarket layout. And that we go in, and there are certain things that we intend to buy. And that’s what we do every week, and we come out with those things and those things only. But of course we are really influenced by the supermarket layout. But under the lockdown rules, now that you’re forced into a one-way system, it’s that difference between, “I know this place, I have a very firm task that I want to achieve, and therefore, these new rules are kind of stopping me achieve that,” and the ability to almost switch off your navigational skills and focus on the task of picking up the shopping — because you no longer have any decisions to make, they’re all being made for you.
Chapter 2: The Mind of a Wanderer
It’s clear that there are so many processes going on inside our minds when we visit a new space, or revisit a familiar one. So, we if rely just as heavily on our emotions as we do our eyes when moving around a space, how much does psychology play a part in manipulating our behaviour? Are shops watching what we do?
Alison: Yes, it is absolutely happening to us. I mean, I think again, there have been enough eye tracker research and enough experiments, particularly in the supermarket realm, to show that there is a lot of the psychology of where you place things. And we did a project many, many years ago with the National History Museum, and they’d gone through a phase where the government had taken away some of the funding. And for a while you had to pay to get in. And then, that had stopped and it’d gone back to being a free environment. And one of their biggest issues at the time was if you went in via the Alfred Waterhouse building — so that was the one that had, at the time, the dinosaur skeletons in the entrance — that, as you walked in, there were these numerous reception desks, which had been the place where you paid, and you picked up your ticket. But you walked into that building, you immediately slow down, from a sort of psychological, behavioural thing that we all do when we enter a building, and you’re hit immediately by these barriers.
And the biggest issue with that was that it’s also a spectacular entrance, a spectacular building. So as you walk in, you’re trying to take onboard this vista, and you’re also being barred from walking any further. And everybody then was backing up all the way down the stairs, out the front of the building, and out into the gardens. And it’s just because things had been placed in a way that stopped you from getting further enough into the building to be able to stop and take in what was happening.
And all of those things are being tested all of the time. Airports look at efficiencies around security queues, around duty-free areas. In retail environments, it’s really important to try to make people feel comfortable. And, for us, when we’re planning positioning of information, we’re also looking at where’s the best place where you can stop and read information where you don’t feel like you’re going to be trampled because you’re in the middle of a circulation space? So all of those things are super important.
Mark: Do we behave differently, if we are individuals not surrounded by many people versus the way that we may behave, if we’re part of a crowd, a large group of people?
Mark: Can you talk to us a little bit about what those differences are?
Alison: There’s a number of differences. Firstly, when you’re an individual, so let’s say you enter a large space, and if we keep on with the retail theme, and you think about a shopping mall. If you’re going into a shopping mall, and let’s say it’s lunchtime and there are three things that you have to purchase in the hour that you’ve got, and you’ve still got to get back to the office within that time, then you’re in a very task-based mode. Then, it’s about, “I’ve got to skip around, avoid everybody else, I need to find the shortest, or what I feel is the most efficient, way of getting those items.” And, therefore, you try to think through, sometimes overthink, how you’re going to make those things happen in the time that you’re given. And being time-poor can actually have a big impact on stress. And, therefore, you always feel like everybody else is an annoyance who’s getting in your way.
Conversely, if you take people that are going into, say, a football stadium, or coming out of a football stadium, or a gig, or anything like that, then you’re much more likely to go with the crowd. And that’s partly because you’re being swept along and actually it’s too difficult to try to go against the crowd. It’s also partly because, in that respect, you know they’re all doing the same task that you are. Once you get inside, say, a football stadium, you may be going to different places, but ultimately you know they’re all going to that same place, so it’s easy to follow everybody else because there’s safety in it. So, that’s kind of one of the big differences between the way we will behave in a crowd, and the way we behave individually.
Mark: There’s something in the use of space from a leisure perspective that I find, if I think about activities like orienteering, for example, you’ve got to make your way from A to B. Now, that’s what I sort of grew up with as being an outdoor leisure activity that involved space. These days, there are increasing numbers of escape room companies being set up, which is a completely fascinating… why are we so interested in escape rooms? Why do we flock to them? Because I was reading that you can now, if you want to, the game Crystal Maze, you can now go and do that with a group of friends. That’s a brand new thing, is it?
Alison: Yes. I mean, in a way it’s sort of interesting because firstly, escape rooms, although there is a little bit of technology involved, is actually quite an analogue thing to do. So it kind of goes against everything that we have around us which is much more technologically based. But I think partly the escape room fashion is because we actually like being scared if it’s in safe circumstances. And so the idea of locking yourself into a room, and the only way you can get out is to be clever enough to uncrack the code, is a safe way of feeling a little bit scared. It’s also a safe way of showing off, because anyone that can crack the code is always the smartest. And so there is a bit of competitiveness in that as well, and showing that you’ve got the cognitive ability to work out the code. But I think it’s when you take it outside of escape rooms and you’re suddenly scared in a dark alley at night, that’s where it feels really real. That’s where wayfinding becomes really important.
Mark: Really important. Do we have any data that gives us any sense as to how poor wayfinding could actually cost businesses, either in terms of money lost or in terms of the efficiency and the effectiveness of the service that they provide? Do we have any data that can help us with that?
Alison: Yes, there is some data in a few sectors. The biggest amount of data comes from the healthcare system, actually. So we know that it costs the NHS, it’s a ridiculous amount of money, for every missed consultant’s appointment, it’s about £150. And we know that there are thousands of missed appointments in the health service every year. Now, while not all of those are down to poor wayfinding, being able to find your way around a place that you are really stressed out in, that when it comes to hospitals, it may be the only time you’ve ever been in it, or it may be that you only go there once a year or once every 10 years, and to be able to find a consultant’s room, to be able to have that consultant tell you what the issue is, is incredibly stressful and incredibly difficult.
Years ago, some of the first projects I did was in the healthcare service, and some of the trusts were struggling where they were losing thousands and thousands of pounds a year because of poor wayfinding. There’s also been a couple of examples more recently. I think it was a chap in the States who went into one of the kind of more mega malls that they have, and he managed to get into a back of house set of stairs, and he could not work out how to get out of them. And they didn’t find him for four days and unfortunately, he passed away. So although there are only a few of those cases, poor wayfinding can have a massive impact.
Mark: That’s interesting, and terrifying as well. I mean, there’s a difference between you finding yourself trying to navigate the Metro system in Tokyo, which is just so difficult it’s hilarious, versus you actually getting lost and tragically perishing in a building like that. I’m just sort of getting flashbacks of old road safety adverts that from my childhood. That was one about, it was something like, “Drive the roads you know as carefully as those you don’t.” There’s something in that, isn’t there, that because it’s familiar and we know it, we just not taking in enough information about where risks may be.
Alison: Absolutely. Familiarity breeds contempt, and that’s very true of wayfinding. And you’re absolutely right; the majority of car accidents tend to happen very close to where you live. They also tend to happen on small roads. I think most people think that car accidents mostly happen on motorways, but actually, it’s small roads close to where you live. And it is because we drive virtually by muscle memory, because we’re also thinking of a million different things, and therefore we don’t give it the same amount of attention as we would if we were in a place that we were completely unfamiliar with. It’s not something that we’re doing deliberately. It’s a subconscious thing. It’s because we know. Because we know we checked that there wasn’t another car coming, it’s because we know the area and we know and we have an expectation of what’s going to happen. And that can lead to that momentary lapse of attention.
Chapter 3: Landmarks and Predictions
Many of you, I’m sure, had planned to attend music festivals this summer. If you did, you may already be mentally gearing up for a return to sunny days spent listening to your favourite bands. But in a field where everything looks the same, and where row after row of tents stretches as far as the eye can see, how do you avoid getting lost? Well, wayfinding can help the festivals too.
Alison: Glastonbury in the last, I think about the last five years, have really worked hard to make wayfinding a stronger part of what they do. So, a field full of tents that all look pretty much the same when you may have had a little bit too much to drink and it’s three o’clock in the morning, becomes a complete wayfinding nightmare. And that’s the best excuse under the sun to wake up in somebody else’s tent, I am sure! However, I understand that at Glasto now they’ve introduced digital apps to help you find your tent in the middle of the night.
And they have worked much harder in creating landmarks, because when you set a festival up that’s in the middle of a series of fields that go on forever and everything looks the same when it’s crowded with people, the biggest thing that you can do to help people recognise where they are, is to create lots of really interesting landmarks. And they’ve worked really, really hard to do that in the last sort of five or six years so that at least you can go, “Oh yes, look, I’ve gone past the circus tent. And now I remember that the field that my tent is in was past that, so I know I’m going in the right direction.” And that is really, really useful.
Mark: What does the future hold for wayfinding? Because it strikes me that whilst this is established, we’ve only really begun to scratch the surface of what wayfinding can do for us. Are there developments coming down the line all the time that will help us get better at this?
Alison: Yes. And in a way, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. There are lots of developments. I mean, you see it, even the fact that mobile phones can now do point-to-point navigation. Google have started to introduce like a three-dimensional wayfinding version of their Google Maps, so that when you’re standing in the street, you can hold your phone up and it can recognise the street that you’re in and then you can actually see the physical route to where you need to go. So that’s one step on from their ‘blue dot’ wayfinding that they had previously. And all of these technologies are going to improve more and more and more. And as things get more integrated into watches, clothing — I know Google Glasses are dead, but there’s a rumour they might come back — there are also innovations where they’re testing, projecting maps onto the windscreens of cars so that the map is there in front of you, but it doesn’t obscure your ability to focus on the road. So there are massive amounts of wayfinding prototypes and technology that are moving forward.
But the reason why it’s a double-edged sword is because one of the big issues with it is it takes away from our need to have a natural ability to find our way. And that can also cause as many problems as it solves. So there was a test done, and I think it was done by the RAC, and I think it was about three years ago where they took people in a driving simulator, and they gave half the people a sat nav to follow, and they gave the other half of people an atlas in the what’s now seen as the old-fashioned way of finding your way around the roads. So you look at the atlas, and then you remember what you need to, and then drive the simulator. And the people that used the sat nav didn’t even notice that the sat nav took them past the same place twice. Whereas the people that didn’t use the sat nav noticed it straight away.
And of course, what happens is that we start to rely on the technology and we stop looking around us and taking on board some of that cognitive mental mapping that’s quite important for our innate ability to find our way. And maybe that’s okay, because maybe in the future we can use our brain function to be doing lots of other things. When the driverless car is driving us around, maybe it’s no longer important to know how to get to the A41 or whatever. But equally, I think there are some important parts of wayfinding that we need to hang on to.
Mark: I think there’s a lot of evolution that needs to occur, you’re right, in terms of our cognitive ability to do two things at once. I think one example I always like to reflect on is the fact that it is impossible for someone to be on the phone outside and not in someone else’s way.
Mark: To seem to not be able to recognise the fact that we’re trying to have a conversation as somebody else is coming the other way. And one, that is annoying, but two, it’s dangerous in the sense that isn’t there a survival instinct there, or some self-preservation instinct to know that danger may be around us? But we’re just not. We don’t seem to be capable of putting those two things together. The amount of times… I mean, I am incredibly clumsy, to the extent of cuts and scrapes on my hands where I walk into things that I know are there. So you think, “God knows what it would be like if I were in a place of danger. I’m in serious, serious risk of injury here.” But we have to evolve, don’t we? We have to get better at this.
Alison: Yes. And I think one of the important things to remember is that we have spent thousands of years crafting our environment. I mean, everywhere that we go, apart from the middle of a forest, the middle of a desert, or the North Pole, or a mountain, has been beautifully crafted by another human being. And therefore, we’re all a part of the creation of our own environment. And so, to an extent, our understanding of our own environment is a little bit about our understanding of ourselves. And I think that there are lots of people involved in trying to make our environments inherently safe, because… whether it’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we are constantly trying to make ourselves inherently safe.
And in a way, we create our cities and our environments to provide us with that idea of safety. And once something feels safe to do, then we can move on to the next cognitive level, I guess. And so, as long as people don’t take these wayfinding tools out of context, or assume that they can replace common sense, then in theory, it should be okay to rely on the technology to do some of that work for us. But it’s where our common sense leads us is really where it becomes a big issue.
Mark: Yes. And I think on that note, mine leaves me regularly! Alison, thank you very much. It’s been fascinating to talk to you. Thank you.
Alison: Pleasure, thank you
Massive thank you then, to Alison for joining me on the podcast. And to recap, what have we learnt?
We create mental models of our environment in order to navigate it better, and to develop stronger connections with it. It’s one of the reasons why television comedies and continuing dramas use a smaller number of familiar locations; once the audience understands the precinct, they can concentrate on enjoying the show.
So, when you’re writing, pay clear attention to the number and type of locations you use. If you use too many, or don’t make them distinct enough, it can be hard for a reader or an audience to engage. Allow them to feel at home. The reverse is also true. If you want to convey a sense of unease or anxiety then, as we’ve heard from Alison, an unfamiliar environment can have the same impact on a character as it can for the audience.
Finally, we behave differently when we’re alone than when we’re in a crowd. How many sides of a character do we get to see in your story? Put your characters in unfamiliar settings and see how they react.
Thanks for listening. I’m Mark Heywood. And if you’d like to get in touch, we’re on Twitter and Facebook as @BehindTheSpine. New episodes are released weekly. Please like us and review us on Apple Podcasts. It really does help.
Coming up next week, I’ll be in conversation with Dr Aoife Abbey, author of Seven Signs of Life: Stories from an Intensive Care Doctor.
"Medicine is more than people think it is. It is just about the medicine, but people don’t realise that the medicine is the whole person.”
Goodbye for now. Stay safe, and keep writing.
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