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Wayfinding and city signage
Wayfinding and city signage

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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, bicyclists and pedestrians from the frustration of being lost or disoriented and can keep roads and paths safe for all.Perhaps the number-one wayfinding tool, signs 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.

Another popular tool, maps 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 information—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 Oakland, Penn., are taking cues from shopping malls, convention centers and airports and considering the addition of digital signage to city buildings or select street corners. This signage, often in the form of kiosks, includes LCD 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. These kiosks also allow users to print maps and directions as needed, while some are even capable of producing stamps and bus or metro passes. Consider stocking these kiosks with pens and paper pads for users to take notes and highlight routes.
  • Multilingual signage
    The U.S. has a diverse culture that has become increasingly multilingual. Slowly but surely, cities in California have begun to implement Spanish translations on municipal signage, while other cities throughout the U.S. have implemented Hmong and Chinese translations in neighborhoods that are heavily populated with non-English speakers.
  • 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.

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. Users could scan the codes with their phones and find themselves part of a self-guided audio tour of the Bay Area. 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 endeavors … 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 hand fans to build excitement.

“The IO Kiosk and Mobile App | Innovate Oakland.” Oakland Business Improvement District. Web. 19 Dec. 2010.

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