The Path of Least Resistance.

Intuitive wayfinding.

Published by:
  • Environments

Written by:
  • Maria Briganti, Environments Design Director

Fine tuning the movement of people is the complex science of wayfinding and cognitive mapping, it’s what makes a place inherently functional. Urbanite’s environment design director, Maria Briganti explains…

What is wayfinding? It is the movement from a starting point to a destination using visual landmarks, physical routes and preconceived expectations or requirements. It is a journey and this journey will sometimes take

…the shortest possible route
…or the loveliest route that allows you to take in beauty
…or a route that swings past your favourite coffee shop
…or even perhaps a route which might avoid things, like that extra flight of stairs, the smelly bins or even your ex-boyfriend’s work.

It is a journey based on visual cues, physical cues, personal and emotional requirements. Our route can be determined by many factors but what we do know is that everyone wayfinds in different ways based on a myriad of factors. Our job is to inform and reassure the user that the direction in which they are heading is correct. When we use a sign, it means that the environment is not clear enough or the clues are not intuitive enough to lead that person in the right direction. Sometimes the journeys are so complex, or the services offered in an environment are so detailed that clear signage is the only way to define a journey and point people is the right direction.

Many satisfying architectural experiences happen when the paths are clearly defined, the views are intriguing enough to pull you through the space and when the information available allows you to orientate yourself successfully.

Clearly defined paths however can sometimes fall second to ‘desire paths’, the unexpected well-worn tracks along the landscape, across grass and through hedges. These occur when a shortcut is visible and attainable, when the desired destination or nearest way point is within reach but not able to be accessed by the allocated pathway and landscaping. Michigan State University didn’t complete the landscape architecture of their new grounds until the students started using the campus so they could pave the natural routes made by the student themselves. (The Guardian)

The frontal lobe controls movement, however, the region of the brain specifically in control of orientation and navigating the spatial environment is the hippocampus. The hippocampus helps determine where you are, how you got to that location, and how to navigate to the next destination or landmark.

A recent study showed that reading maps and developing navigational skills can affect the brain in beneficial ways, with London taxi drivers having a larger and more developed hippocampus than ordinary drivers. On the flip side the use of technology, GPS and navigating devices has meant that some people rely too heavily on technology and when the need arises to orientate themselves via a map, they are completely incapable. The incidents of lost hikers and bush walkers keeps increasing as people are under-utilising and not exercising their hippocampus, making it more difficult for people to naturally orientate themselves.

Orientation is important to feeling confident and reassured within your environment. Orientation happens within your mind when it is aware of three particular dimensions. The first dimension is that of time, knowing what day, month or year it is. Time can also be expressed through access to daylight, therefore capturing a sense of what time of day it is. Natural ventilation can also help you understand the temperature, allowing one to determine the weather and subsequently the season. The second dimension is that of ‘place’, understanding where you are. This can be determined by a level above ground or a landmark or simply by visibility, differentiating elements in the physical environment. The third is the dimension of person, that is, who you are and why you’re there. Expressing functionality is a clear and reassuring ingredient to intuitive orientation. Is this place intimate or public? Do I move fast or slow? Is this a place of work or entertainment? When one or more of these dimensions are unavailable it can lead to problems with orientation, which in turn leads to disorientation. Typically, disorientation is first in time, then in place and finally in person.

My brother-in-law is placed third, nationally in the M45 Australian Orienteering rankings and has taken the act of orientation to the extreme level. He often spends 24 hours in the wilderness with only a map, a compass, a water bottle and a protein bar. I asked him how he navigates his way through unfamiliar territory, and he explained when he sees a map for the first time he tries to visualize the landscape through its defining landmarks. He looks for a creek or a rock, a change in steepness or vegetation and then uses those features as a tool to guide him.

“I use those things as ‘handrail’ features to guide me through the landscape … if you know that a control marker is 1 km away you break it into smaller segments and tick each one off as you go along. These markers act to reassure me that I’m going in the right direction.” Greg Morcom

He is making a mental image of the environment first, ‘cognitive mapping’ based on all his experience, knowledge and memories enabling him to interpret the landscape. Cognitive mapping is also a data base of stored memories that we recall when moving through space, we piece together the most memorable aspects of our experiences of a space and use them as touch stones, breadcrumb trails. The most memorable cities are successful because of the richness of the journeys we experience.

Within the built environment using architectural details, features, folly and art as landmarks which are engaging and memorable allows users to orientate and personalise their journey with their own set of familiar waypoints. In much the same way I remember my Aunty Maria’s street is the first street on the left after that weird tudor house or how I navigate my way home on the bus, pressing the button for my bus stop once I go past the Macedonian restaurant on King Street.

So the key is to break the journey up into smaller ‘chunks’ with the landmarks acting to describe the journey and reassure you that you are going in the right direction. In an unfamiliar environment when the landmarks are engaging or described well you remember them enough so that you can find your way back. It’s reassuring and satisfying!

A successful architectural journey through space is one that uses many design disciplines to create a compelling experience. The journey will often be along a circulation route which is the connective path between two destinations, but what defines this path? Understanding how different architectural and environmental elements effect a user allow you to use subtle, integrated or obvious cues to successfully guide users through space and ensuring they arrive to their desired destination, intuitively.

Scale — Contrasting large open spaces with intimate defines public from private. Large welcoming public routes as opposed to private narrow back of house circulation.

Height — Creating options for traveling vertically and drawing people up by allowing views to daylight, sky or other interesting elements that draw your eye upwards.

Directional — funnelling users by structure, varying the width of pathways to define direction within major circulation routes can ease or direct traffic flow.

Views — Revealing other spaces or destinations at the correct time gives a user options, they begin to understand the offering within an environment and make the right choices for them. Alternatively, controlling views facilitates the users, limiting choice therefore helping them to make the right decision at the right time. A slow reveal can also heighten the experience and add a sense of discovery, only revealing what one ‘needs to know’ or focus on at that particular touchpoint.

Light — Natural light as opposed to artificial light, warm colour temperature as opposed to cool lighting, dim as opposed to bright lighting all effects people differently and either attracts or repels based on the circumstances. Circadian lighting temperatures which reflect the subtle colours of the sun at different times of day can act to calm, welcome and put people at ease as well as energise.

Fine tuning the movement of people is where a wayfinding specialist in a team from the outset of a project can help inform and integrate cues, details and techniques to help guide people and move people through space.

Colour, materiality and texture — creating differentiation within a floor finish will define and promote differing behaviour in the user.  Highlighting pathways through colour, hardness of surface or texture can speed people up or slow people down, think of stone floor as opposed to carpet, or loose gravel as opposed to paved. One can also define still, quiet seating areas by creating “islands in the stream” with rugs, soft furnishing and furniture contrasting the surrounding environment.

Sculptural — a large Icon in the landscape becomes a focus of that landscape, somewhere to explore, as do architectural landmarks. Engaging artists to create culturally significant icons within a landscape are highly successful tools used by cities worldwide with helping create a sense of place, and ultimately help with identification and navigation.

People — having people visible firstly to ask questions or directions of can be very important in certain circumstances. Also a gathering of people can indicate a major entrance, think of a hospital. Therefore encouraging sitting and gathering in areas can define the surrounding area as a focal point and area of interest. And finally…

Signage — This is the final layer of graphic communication which provides the user all the information necessary to solve the wayfinding problem that the architecture, interior and human interactions cannot.

On a larger scale the following lists techniques one can employ to guide users through urban environments these categories first outlined by Kevin Lynch in his book ‘The Image of the City’ in 1960:

Paths — major thoroughfares like streets or walkways.

Edges — boundaries which define area’s

Districts — Areas which are treated in the same way with a familiar commonality

Nodes — Open breathing spaces where many paths converge

Landmarks — Which are visible, unique, culturally significant and memorable.

There are particular public journeys that intuitive wayfinding is absolutely necessary for, however private journeys may require a high level of signage and wayfinding, you certainly don’t want to intuitively find the toilets or your Dr’s office. Therefore as long as there are intuitive cues integrated into the architecture, landscape or interiors and an overlay of signage we all should find what we’re looking for …. well …. that is as long as everyone is looking up from their smart phones or not!?. The role that smart phones can play in wayfinding, placemaking and giving another dimension to location is complex and a whole other conversation for another day.

Want to know more?

If you’d like to know more about our approach and design services in the built environment, please contact us at or read more about our projects here.

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