Wayfinding


Like a lot of bloggers, I track my site’s stats—hit counts, traffic patterns—and I noticed that a disproportionate number of the search queries people use to find my blog are about pictograms, those little symbol-signs used as visual shorthand for the tasks and objects we are likely to encounter during travel. (For some reason, this post about trash pictograms seems to be especially popular.)

So here’s a brief introduction to pictograms: The most iconic set of pictograms are the DOT pictograms. These were commissioned in the 1970s by the US Department of Transportation in an attempt to alleviate confusion between different pictogram sets in different venues. Before the DOT commission, different venues developed their own sets of pictograms, so “telephone” or “elevator” would be represented by a different symbol depending on where you were—the pictograms at LaGuardia were different from those at O’Hare were different from those at LAX, etc.  

At the DOT’s behest, the American Institute of Graphic Arts, now simply AIGA, reviewed 28 pictogram systems in use throughout the world—at airports, at stadia, at hospitals, at Olympic Games—evaluating each system for legibility and readability. (AIGA was concerned not only with how successfully a sign could convey its message, but also at what distance and at what size it could be read. That’s important for wayfinding, which is another post entirely.) Using this information, AIGA produced a total of 50 pictograms for the DOT, 34 in 1974 and another 16 in 1979.

The pictograms were released into the public domain in order to speed their adoption, and they remain copyright-free. The complete set of symbols is available online, through AIGA, in both .gif and .eps format.

There’s not a lot of secondary-source work on the pictogram, and the best resource for the history and development of the DOT pictograms is the report that the American Institute of Graphic Arts produced back in the 1970s. Symbol Signs, second edition, was published in 1993 by AIGA. (The full citation is: The Professional Association for Design for the U.S. Department of Transportation. Symbol signs, 2nd ed. New York: American Institute of Graphic Arts, 1993. The library of the nearest university is probably your best bet.)

The report is fascinating: There are tables upon tables of the different pictograms used by each of the pictogram families: 24 different pictograms for “telephone”, 40 or more for “restroom.” The report lays out, with remarkable clarity, the classifications and criteria used to determine the best format for a given pictogram. Reading the report is like going back in time, to when pictograms were part of a local culture, the local dialect of a commonly-understood speech.

As with most global standardizing movements, we’ve lost something in quest for efficiency, in our impulse to streamline, in our desire to standardize the way we communicate with the built environment. The clarity we’ve gained is (of course) more important than retaining confusing and outmoded sign systems, which is why the AIGA report is so valuable: through the report, the pictogram families survive as historical artifacts, as testament to the way we used to see.

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The I. M. Pei Pyramid at the Musée du Louvre is one of the most architecturally distinctive buildings in Paris, and draws a lot of its meaning from its centrality within the Louvre. It is the entrance pavilion, the exit pavilion, the hub at the center of the museum’s diverse galleries and exhibits. The pyramid is an icon—both for the Louvre, and, cleverly, for the exit:

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This is brilliant because it introduces a literal meaning to pictograms. All too often, pictograms are abstracted idealizations: An exit is a figure moving, a door, an arrow. In the Louvre, the pictogram for “exit” literally means “exit”. It is both universal and place-specific, balancing between the need to speak to a specific audience and the need to speak to the multinational members of the audience. The pyramid, already an icon for the museum, is abstracted and flattened into an icon of itself.

That the Louvre can invent its own pictograms speaks to the strength of the institution. You can do it, but it’s not a good idea, because it tends to hurt wayfinding significantly while aiding branding very little. The cleverness of the pyramid-as-exit pictogram is that it’s smart graphic design, but it’s not merely smart graphic design. It’s also smart wayfinding.

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Signage and moving walkways between CDG terminals 2C and 2E. Airports are (or should be) a kind of disposable place, purpose-built to be friendly to single-use. As the transience of a building’s expected audience increase, wayfinding grows in importance, to the point where wayfinding becomes the singular purpose of the building. The airport as transit gateway is also space for transit itself, and should structure itself accordingly.

Good wayfinding is intuitive wayfinding, to paraphrase Jane Davis Doggett; people find CDG confusing because it is an non-intuitive airport. The sign in the above photo includes only labels.

To its credit, the signage at CDG speaks in a consistent visual language (dark blue for intra-airport circulation, light blue to leave the airport; French in white, [British] English in yellow; elements left-justified and separated by a half-height white line, then right-justified). The pictograms aren’t DOT pictograms, although (interestingly) the arrow in the moving-walkway-arrow compound pictograms is “DOT arrow pointing down”. (Although the DOT pictograms were released in the early 1970s, when the inclusion of moving walkways in airports was, while not ubiquitous, well-known, the DOT pictograms do not include a pictogram for moving walkways.)

If these French pictograms act as a visual vocabulary, what does it say that one of them is based on an American pictogram? Can we see a parallel here between remixed American pictograms how the Toulon Law and the Académie française treat verbal language? Are le weekend and the moving-walkway-arrow compound pictogram cousins of a sort?

The three different train pictograms on this sign hit on the cultural assumptions behind a set of standardized pictograms. Different cultures need different vocabularies.

Note also HSBC’s red line, running at about chest-level on the windows on both sides of this corridor.

This modification of fence sheeting is clever because it (a) anticipates a problem, (b) recognizes human needs, and (c) responds with restraint. It’s so simple as to inspire awe: Of course people might crash into each other, of course they will want to be able to see around the corner to prevent that, and of course only one perspective matters.

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This hack reminds me of forced-perspective parking garage signage. The signage is perfectly readable only when you need to read it, and disappears as soon as you no longer need it. (Axel Peemöller was the artist for the project.) In other words, instead of looking at plan and perspective drawings of our buildings, I think we should consider them in human-scale four-dimensional terms. The space should change as we move through it. This isn’t a new idea—human circulation engineers talk about altering ceiling height or lighting to subtly inform wayfinding decisions—but the level of detail in these two specific cases is incredible. There is a fineness to them, a smoothness, that comes with correctly anticipating human wants or needs. And isn’t that what we want our spaces to do?