What is Wayfinding?

It’s all about discovery

When you’re traveling, you probably don’t pay too much attention to the signage around you. Of course, if you need to find a specific exit or make a specific turn, then signage is important, but it’s certainly rare to think of signage in a broader context. Indeed, most signs are borne out of the discipline of “wayfinding.” Since the beginning of humankind, wayfinding has been a way to navigate throughout our world. In modern times, we get to use street signs, maps, and other markers to stay on the right path. But, wayfinding wasn’t always so easy.


Wayfinding Definition

Before we get too far, it’s important to understand exactly what wayfinding is. Wayfinding describes anything used to help humans navigate to different places. So, the discipline could be used for a directory at a hospital or a road sign that indicates how many miles you are from another location. These implements point us in the right direction and assure us that we’re not lost. Wayfinding is something that we use every day whether we realise it or not, and there are always good and bad examples of it. For instance, many people have encountered a confusing hospital map, but others may have found the signage at airports to be extremely useful.


Wayfinding’s Past

Humans have always needed some form of wayfinding throughout history. Getting to and from locations safely and efficiently was a valuable tool. Of course, printed maps and big signs weren’t available to our ancestors hundreds of years ago. Instead, they used what was available to help them navigate through different terrain. For instance, some Native American tribes forced small saplings to grow sideways. When they became adult trees, they would continue to be oriented awkwardly and they could be used as a sign for travelers.

As societies progressed, however, the need for better signage was vital. When the first towns and villages started forming, people need to have directions within the town and from town to town. Carvings or signals were used to indicate where someone was. This rudimentary wayfinding was key to the progression of the discipline as a whole.


Urban Development and Wayfinding

As civilisations became considerably more urban, the need for more diversified wayfinding became apparent. Indeed, try to imagine walking around a major metropolis like London or New York City without street signs or a map to lead the way. It would certainly get confusing. The invention and prevalence of the car made effective signage much more essential. More people were using these modes of transportation and signs had to keep up.

Of course, our more organised and populated societies required an increase of wayfinding everywhere. From school and university campuses to shopping centres, hospitals and parks, maps and signs have made our lives much easier to navigate. Even with all the advancements we’ve seen in wayfinding over the years, the way we think about wayfinding is still virtually the same. Anything that helps humans find a location is useful. Even seeing something like a church steeple or a brand name in the distance can be an indication of one’s location. It’s clear that wayfinding is a valuable and important discipline for all of humanity.

“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

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