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Monday, February 06, 2012

Book Review: The Wayfinding Handbook

The Wayfinding Handbook: Information Design for Public Spaces by David Gibson
Princeton Architectural Press, 2009
Paperback, 152 pages

In graduate school I analyzed Martha Schwartz's design for Jacob Javits Plaza in Lower Manhattan, a public space defined by curling, bright green benches. Part of the analysis involved observing and mapping how people moved across the plaza. On a number of occasions I witnessed people walk towards a building entry, only to find themselves caught up in the maze of benches and then backtrack; one disgruntled person even climbed over the benches upon realizing his path was supposed to meander. Schwartz's design does have two wide paths that run perpendicular to each other, but one conclusion I made from my observations was that the overall design is poor in terms of wayfinding -- the mental process of orientation in space. The design tries to balance two users -- people from the surrounding buildings eating lunch, people visiting the Federal building that abuts the plaza -- but it's clear the former prevails.

In the case of Jacob Javits Plaza, a different layout of the benches would have contributed to better wayfinding for people not familiar with the place, but in larger urban spaces by multiple actors or in highly complex buildings other means are needed. This book by David Gibson of Two Twelve -- a title in Princeton Architectural Press's Design Briefs series -- is a thorough yet easy to digest overview of wayfinding design, a specialized discipline that deals with scales from the very large (urban quarters, landscapes) to the very small (fonts, symbols). For the most part wayfinding design is the placement and articulation of signage and other visuals in the environment to help people orient themselves. Our reliance upon signs is strong, particularly in buildings like hospitals and transit hubs, where an influx of visitors is common, layouts are maze-like, and people can be in a hurry. Good wayfinding design therefore means legibility is almost immediate; it does not require one to stop and look closely at a sign in order to decipher where one is going.

Gibson's book is a great primer for learning about wayfinding design and what to take into consideration in order to make it work well. Not surprisingly the book itself is its best advocate; its design makes the structure of the book clear and finding parts within it easy. The content is spread across four numbered chapters (1-The Discipline, 2-Planning Wayfinding Systems, 3-Wayfinding Design, 4-Practical Considerations) that are then broken down into detailed subsections. After the book gives an overview of the discipline it walks the reader through a project, a process that basically parallels that of an architecture project. Next it delves into the colors, fonts, symbols, and other pieces that comprise signage, and then the book concludes by talking about things like writing proposals, working with code requirements, and documenting signage for fabrication. Green design is only touched upon in terms of what materials signs are made of, and the relationship between wayfinding design and the quality of constructed places is not discussed at any length (as an architect I can't help think a plan can do as much to aid in wayfinding as signage), but these deficits don't really detract from a solid and well-illustrated overview of one aspect of environmental design that deserves more attention.

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