Craig Berger

Innovative Map Conveys 'Identity and Personality' of a Place

When we think of the words “art” and “design,” a map is probably not the first image that comes to mind. And yet, as odd as it may seem, a well-designed map is a kind of masterpiece unto itself. How easy it can be to take information for granted until lack of it disrupts our ability to get where we’re going. We have mobile apps and GPS tracking devices to assist us, of course, helping us figure out, down to the number of minutes, how long it will take to walk, drive or bike from one destination to another. Interfacing with technology, however, doesn’t necessarily compensate for the physical world -- that is, the actual environments we find ourselves in. Nor can it, as of this very moment, anticipate what we will think or feel when we interact with those environments.

So, though my magical iPhone 4s can be super handy in helping me make my way through downtown Chicago—there’s also a ChiTransit app for tracking buses and trains—and might even increase my confidence about heading in the right direction, it can’t make me feel safer in an unfamiliar area or help me weed out extraneous information I might encounter along my route. (Needless to say, if I lost my phone altogether I would be in a wee bit of trouble.)

Technology provides one type of support, built signs provide another. To put it another way, wayfinding systems reflect a sensitivity regarding human behavior, providing information in a way that is usable, accessible and intuitive to everyone in the physical world, mobile devices or no.

Last week I mentioned a group based in Pittsburgh engaging in community art projects to help improve the space and environment of a given community. This week, I mention a program that also contributes to “sense of place,” though in a more systematic way. Walk! Philadelphia, billed as one of the most innovative and comprehensive pedestrian sign systems in North America, was developed by Joel Katz Design Associates as part of a multimillion-dollar “Streetscape Improvement Project.”

At first glance, the signs don’t necessarily look unique. However, the design of the information on the signs speaks to the role that designers play in using creative problem-solving to improve the way we experience a given place, on a human level.

Joel Katz’s system utilizes a “heads up” approach. Meaning, that the map orientation is based on the direction pedestrians are facing as opposed to traditional maps that are usually oriented north. The result is a map that rotates—on some signs the arrow at the top points east, on others west--depending on which direction a viewer is facing. (Maps that are designed based on how we humans actually use them. Go figure!)

Part of the Walk! Philadelphia mapping system involves a hierarchy of information, prioritizing details that a pedestrian needs to know based on his or her location.

In his book "Wayfinding: Designing and Implementing Graphic Navigational Systems," Craig Berger sums up his excerpt on the Walk! Philadelphia project nicely: “The maps that Joel Katz Design Associates have developed go beyond the idea of a map as simply a way to get from point a to point b to a fundamental extension of identity and personality for a facility, campus or city.”

Yes, even a campus or facility or community can have a personality. And our job as designers is to bring those personalities into view in distinctive and creative ways that honor places, spaces and the people who inhabit them.

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…

Enhancing a Sense of Place While Respecting the 'Less Is More' Principle

As I continue gathering comments regarding art and wayfinding programs across the country—thanks to those of you who have been sending me links and suggestions!—I want to make sure that I distinguish between art/design that enhances sense of place versus art/design that creates visual clutter. “Less is more” may sound trite but given how saturated we are with information, whether in the physical world or digital realm, maintaining a degree of clarity becomes increasingly important.I am an unabashed supporter of wayfinding systems as a means of helping people navigate an environment as well as a proponent of public art that reflects the ethos of given community. And I come to expect that my experience in a city is going to be different than in a town of roughly 30,000 people.

To put it another way, as much as I enjoy the frenetic energy of New York City’s Times Square, I’m not sure I would appreciate downtown Goshen quite as much if I were constantly inundated with the same level of visual stimulation at all hours of the day. Simplicity and clarity are, at least in some respects, easier to preserve when you’re working within the context of a location Goshen’s size.

But regardless of size, environmental graphics are a necessity in any town or city. In his book Wayfinding: Designing and Implementing Graphic Navigational Systems, Craig Berger describes systems that, developed successfully, keep us anchored in the midst of our “transient identit[ies]” where buildings and spaces may change hands and identities over the course of several years. Moreover, as the country’s demographics shift and our communities become more diverse, the language we use to communicate also shifts. Multilingual signage, for example, may inevitably become the norm.

Given all of these changes, how do we advance the idea of making Goshen a more visually dynamic/distinct place without generating clutter and filling spaces with more stuff? Or, building more signs that must accommodate even more information?

This is somewhat of a rhetorical question given that there is no right or wrong answer. But it opens up numerous possibilities for collaboration between wayfinding, public art and even landscape design into one, comprehensive plan. A sculpture or mural designed for a specific place serves as a landmark that can orient just as well, if not better in some cases, than a sign.

So, in fact, finding ways to integrate a variety of design approaches can enrich a space while simultaneously mitigating the need for more content-heavy information. The beautiful thing about art, of course, is that it is a visual language many people can understand regardless of their respective native tongues. Consequently, imagery and symbols can help fill in communication gaps and signal that we are embracing the growing diversity we are currently experiencing on a local level.