Airports as Labs: A Wayfinding Challenge Complements the Trip


“Wayfinding, in its short definition form, is the act of finding your way to a destination. Wayfinding design, by extension, is the art of helping people find their way. It provides support through speech, touch, print, signs, architecture, and landscape.” -- Craig Berger, "Wayfinding: Designing and Implementing Graphic Navigational Systems" I love navigating my way through airports, particularly the ones I’m passing through for the first time. This may sound odd, but at the risk of coming across as a pretentious design nerd, let me qualify my initial statement by explaining that airports provide the ultimate user-friendly communication challenge.

Average people from all over the world are constantly testing the effectiveness of airport wayfinding systems whether they realize it or not. So, it doesn’t matter if a given individual has studied design--the quality of the communication tools at an airport, or any public transportation hub for that matter, can profoundly affect how efficiently, safely and confidently that individual gets from one place to another.

I have my own, informal method for evaluating airport wayfinding. My “assessments”—I use the term loosely--hinge on how well I get from a drop-off point to my departure gate or from my arrival gate to baggage claim without becoming confused, lost, irritated, frustrated or annoyed. I also pay attention to how seamlessly a city’s public transportation system works with its respective train stations or airports, or both, which can present an additional layer of navigational challenges.

I’ve taken public transportation to and from both O’Hare and Midway airports many, many times. And though I have the benefit of familiarity, I’m always gratified by how easy it is to get to both locations.

Yet, somewhat ironically, trying to get to the Chicago Transit Authority trains from baggage claim (at O’Hare in particular) is always a bit confusing; I usually end up having to ask someone for help because I can’t remember how I found my way to the blue line the last time I flew out of O’Hare.

Yes, there are definitely signs. And, I don’t consider myself to be inept when it comes to navigating new or unfamiliar spaces. But that’s exactly the point. Even if I were severely directionally-challenged, I should still be able to find my way with minimal effort. And if the presence of signs, or lack of consistency with respect to the entire system of signs that is supposed to be guiding me, doesn’t actually help me find the information I need, that system qualifies as a communication failure.

Most of us accept the possibility of getting lost as a normal part of traveling. Retracing steps, getting off of a bus at a wrong stop and encountering construction detours are simply par for the course. But just as taking the wrong train might be nothing more than an inconvenience in some contexts, it might be unsafe in others.

When I’m traveling alone, for example, I’m particularly sensitive about knowing where I’m going and how I’m supposed to get there. Consequently, signs with recognizable pictograms, arrows and color-coded systems are part of a visual language that serve a practical purpose (from a directional standpoint) but also provide a level of support that give me confidence when it comes to understanding and utilizing public transportation.

But whether we’re talking about an airport or a train station or an entire city, wayfinding is one example of how and why effective design matters. As I’ve been stating week after week, design isn’t simply a matter of aesthetics, superfluous window-dressing or excess; art, in a variety forms, has already proven to be an integral part of developing communities where people feel safe and connected.

This blog post marks the official start of my focus on specific wayfinding systems and environmental graphic design programs that have made positive contributions in their respective cities or regions. Stay tuned…