Wayfinding and city signage
As a city official, you might be well aware of wayfinding. But to review, wayfinding relates to knowing where you are and where you are headed. Essentially, wayfinding consists of cues that are recognizable and consistent and that help determine the best route in which to quickly and easily navigate to a destination—and then find the way back again. When used effectively, wayfinding is intuitive and straightforward. It prevents motorists, cyclists and pedestrians from the frustration of being lost or disoriented and can keep roads and paths safe for all.Signs are perhaps the number-one wayfinding tool. They mark streets, provide “breadcrumbs” to popular monuments, cultural attractions, hospitals and government buildings, and are also used as a tactic to route traffic around residential areas.

Maps, another popular tool, are often used to depict public transportation routes, outline parks and zoos or simply provide direction for lost passersby. Usually presented in the format of a sign affixed to a wall, kiosk or bus shelter, maps have been traditionally static—neither interactive nor portable.

Today, Internet, mobile devices and satellite technology are changing the way many cities approach wayfinding and signage, as are greater sensitivities to diverse city populations.

  • Digital signage
    Some cities, like Toronto, are taking cues from shopping malls, convention centres and airports with the introduction of its INFOTOGO interactive wayfinding pillars. Some of the pillars include interactive touch screens that allow users to view maps and directions to local addresses and streets, search for attractions and restaurants, view public transportation stops and routes, and much more. Consider stocking these pillars with pens and paper pads for users to take notes and highlight routes.
  • Multilingual signage
    Canada has a diverse culture that has become increasingly multilingual. While it’s commonplace to see signs in both of our official languages, French and English, cities like Toronto and Vancouver are increasingly tailoring signs to accommodate local populations. For instance, you’ll find Chinese translations on signs in Toronto’s Chinatown. In Sioux Lookout, Ont., the sign welcoming you to Centennial Park is written in English as well as Ojibwe Syllabics.
  • Apps and augmented reality
    Mobile applications, or apps, are quickly moving beyond novelty to necessity in the everyday lives of citizens. Some cities have turned to apps as not only a means of providing useful wayfinding tools to citizens and visitors but as an added revenue source, promoting these apps through marketing materials and sometimes charging a nominal fee for the initial download.

Perhaps the most popular city wayfinding apps revolve around maps. These maps are usually wholly interactive and cannot only tell a user where something is, but where they are themselves, which is especially helpful for those who have lost their way. Maps also often show routes, allow users to search for restaurants, attractions and activities and more.

South of the border, developers in New York City recently created an app that features augmented reality—a live but digital interpretation of the real world. Called WayFinder NYC, it helps users to find New York subway and New Jersey Path stations. The user just aims the phone as if they were taking a picture, and the application indicates subway and PATH stations in that direction. When the user faces another direction, the list of stations will change accordingly. By clicking on a station name, the user can get a map and walking directions to that station.

  • QR Codes
    Anyone with a smartphone can scan and read quick response, or QR, codes with the click of a camera, and anyone with access to a computer can generate QR codes themselves. That’s why some cities, like San Francisco, have joined forces with the likes of Google® Maps or City Search™ to offer a unique alternative to wayfinding and site seeing done by maps and books. In 2009, reviews and audio snippets were embedded into QR codes on San Francisco historical landmarks and restaurants. In Canada, a similar program is running in Toronto’s Yorkville area using Microsoft Tag codes. Build buzz with a program like these by linking a QR code to a free gift, like a Fold-Up Fleece Blanket
    or a cap.

Currently many of these trends exist as private endeavours… but as popularity and demand grows, it may make sense for cities to get on board. Before your city or town gets too excited about these new trends in wayfinding, step back and take a look at your current state of signage and maps and consult a wayfinding and architecture firm for help.

Based on research and analysis, your city or town may then decide to pursue an upgrade or revamp to wayfinding. If this is the case, be sure to communicate plans, funding and changes effectively in order to create excitement, educate constituents and make the transition into the 21st century of wayfinding as seamless as possible. Don’t forget to promote these new resources to residents through direct marketing campaigns that include branded items, like bike lights or a sign-shaped key chain to build excitement.

“Toronto’s INFOTOGO interactive wayfinding pillars.” Digital Signage in Canada. 22 Nov. 2010. Web. 2 Jan. 2011.

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