Science & Psychology of Wayfinding

You would hope that no one would give a brief for the creation of a wayfinding scheme that says, “We’d like it to be quite good”, or one that says “We’d like it to look good, but it doesn’t have to do its job.”  Yet, too often, wayfinding schemes are created that, whilst the signage looks attractive, do not take into account the needs of the people using them.  This is because in developing a wayfinding strategy, designers often do not try to understand the psychology and behaviour of the users.  The inevitable result, then, is a scheme that falls short of its objective.

For many, even in the industry, wayfinding is about well-placed signs to help people get from A to B, but this wayfinding is always more than signage.  We will look at what wayfinding means to humans…the people who are actually trying to find their way around, so it helps to understand what wayfinding actually means.  Professor Per Mollerup has a simple definition of wayfinding, which is widely accepted: “What we do when finding our way in unknown quarters”.  Dr Hugo Spiers, the much-published expert from the Institute of Behavioural Neuroscience at UCL , has a contrasting view, when he draws a distinction between different types of wayfinding, and the need to use different parts of your brain to achieve this: “Finding novel paths between destinations” vs. Route Finding – “following well-learned paths between locations”. Meanwhile, the Oxford Dictionary now offers up “The act of finding one’s way to a particular place; navigation”.

The critical point of all three definitions is that wayfinding is an active process, and about far more than just signs.

Olympic Park Map

We use a simple cyclical model when beginning to understand how people way find – see figure below.  At the heart of this is the need to seek information based on perception, sense and using mental models based on experience and norms.  Our decision can then be made on which way we go, based on our memory of a route or what information conforms to our model.  However, our decision making is often biased, in the case of wayfinding usually by  an extended the concept of What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI) which leads people to fail to identify further information or see gaps in their perception..  Naturally, this is a dynamic model, because having made a decision, we are moving and the environment will change so we get feedback and have to consider whether this reinforces or contradicts our decision.

Wayfinding Perception

For this process to work, we are dependent on our senses…what we see, hear, perhaps smell or feel. – colour, lighting, space, landmarks, entrances, recognisable buildings, crowds are all important as we navigate our way…and this is where information in the space becomes a critical aid…let’s call that signage!

Wayfinding is a multi-faceted cognitive task.  Our brains are constantly sensing information, co-ordinating movement, remembering the environment and planning next steps.  This is a highly complex process, and the cognitive load can vary enormously.  The load depends on, for example, our existing spatial knowledge – are we already aware of landmarks, routes or do we need to survey the environment to ‘get our bearings’.  We have to be able to identify and recall objects in a location, and recall the correct sequence of objects as we move.  Survey is most sophisticated process as it involves the relative interconnection and orientation of points in space and distances between them.

We construct mental models of the environment we are navigating, and this is important for us to be able to achieve our objective.  The urban planner Kevin Lynch understood that we form pictures in our minds of spaces and routes.  This is why the classic city model from him is made from paths, landmarks, nodes, edges and districts.  Mental models evolve from our experience, although they can also be forgotten or become out of date.  But in most scenarios there will be some sort of mental model and some set of expectations. Mapping is one of the key inputs to the building of these models.  Especially where pre-planning occurs or initial orientation to an area.

To a greater or lesser extent, when we are wayfinding, we adopt a variety of strategies.  These may consist track following, route following, educated seeking, inference, aiming, map reading, compassing and social navigation.  Most people use a combination of these strategies.

Track following is simplest, whereas with route following we use pre-journey info to memorise route or use written down instructions.  Routes usually get broken into path segments, decision points and landmarks.  Our cognitive load will vary depending on whether we are ‘coasting’ or if there are periods of expectation that appear just before decision points.  Educated seeking depends on the level and relevance of our experience to work and is based on assumptions of the likelihood of where something might be e.g. we’d look for a petrol station on a busy main road as we know that is where they tend to be located. Inference strategy is based on expectation based on patterns and norms…so you would expect hotel room 211 to be on the second floor, between rooms 210 and 212.  Aiming strategy means heading in the right general direction hopefully using a guide like a nearby landmark to get you close.  This is the concept behind a soon-to-be launched Beeline cycling wayfinding aid which points you in the right general direction rather than giving you turn by turn directions.


We might all think of map reading as a strategy, and these days there are many, many varieties: dynamic, mobile, digital mapping, as well as the more traditional paper map kept in a car’s glove compartment. Compassing is using clues from environment, perhaps the location of sun to help with direction finding.  Interestingly, some research suggests that there is a gender bias – men more likely to navigate by compass; women more likely to use landmarks.  Finally, there is social navigation…which might be better known as ‘follow the crowd’!

Decision making is an intrinsic part of wayfinding…wayfinding designers understand this, and ensure that there are markers to help in that process.   Firstly, we need to plan our route and this involves the extraction of information, route decision, abstraction of the route into key elements which are chosen for their memorability.  Our decisions will be based on intrinsic factors related to that journey, and our own behavioural biases.  Additionally, there will be parameters we need to take into account desire for a scenic route, journey time, traffic, safety, cost and so forth.  So perhaps it might be tied to network of primary routes, or maybe straight line/least angle, or least decision load.  Our short-term memory is critical to managing route instructions, and can be aided by our response to visual clues.

Wayfinding designers should always appreciate that humans are individualistic, and this impacts on how they behave.  There are different personality traits – some people like to pre-plan, some don’t; some are much better at asking for help than others.  The population is made up of people of all sorts of different shapes and sizes, and this impacts on their wayfinding needs and abilities, as does previous experience and knowledge.  For some people, navigation comes more naturally than it does to others.  This is not surprising, but what may come as a surprise is that research shown black cab drivers have enlarged posterior hippocampus (this helps with route navigation) but it reduces in retired drivers.  This suggests navigation might be a use it or lose it skill, and of concern is that our increasing reliance on digital technology might not be a good thing.

So how does all this understanding of how the brain works impact on the real world experience of wayfinding design?  In any scenario, it is critical to understand how people think and respond in a particular environment, and how this impacts on their behaviour.  The designer must understand the range of scenarios in which navigation and decision making are taking place. …for example are they tired and stressed, or short on time…either way they will be more prone to making mistakes. The impact of how other people in a crowd, or the crowd itself, will influence an individual’s behaviour.  So it is important that at every stage of the design process, the real world context must be taken into consideration.

Inclusive design is rightly playing an increasing role in how wayfinding decisions are made.  If you design for people with impairments, whether physical or mental, the likelihood of creating a solution that works better for everyone is greatly increased.

The importance of meaning and association is overwhelming to the human experience, and so to with wayfinding.  It is easy to find your way to somewhere that the station or bus stop has the same name, but if you sell off the naming rights, as is happening in some places (e.g. Jebel Ali station on the Dubai Metro has recently been renamed UAE Exchange station…which will mean nothing to many travellers). As another example, too often you might find hospitals use medical terms on their signage, which is fine for staff, but certainly not to visitors who may well be stressed even before they arrive.

Understanding people, their individual preferences and needs is vital to successful wayfinding design.  But beyond this designer needs to have a greater understanding of how people’s psychology, emotions and individual personality traits impact on how they behave.  Designers must develop an empathy through extensive research and testing which removes their own cognitive bias to provide solutions that better meet the needs of everyone. The client must ensure that when creating the brief, and as the project progresses, the designer takes an approach that builds in an understanding of people, and the way they use wayfinding.  Any less than this will lead to a poorly conceived and implemented system.


Chris Girling

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