Advanced Architecture, Appropriately Applied

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I could use some help with a difficult assignment. I’m a sophomore studying civil engineering. The class I’m in this term is about technology enablement in architecture and design. This coming week, I’m supposed to introduce wayfinding techniques to the class.

I was instructed to showcase an example in the industry but most of the scholarly articles I’ve found thus far focus on the principles rather than current uses. Any direction or guidance here would be much appreciated.

Wayfinding shouldn’t be too difficult to present and it’s a powerful concept that has widespread impacts and implications. You could define it as the design of the physical environment which provides direction for navigating one’s way through a space. Imagine trying to work your way through an unfamiliar airport without alphanumeric gate designations, color-coordinated signs, and pathways that funnel foot traffic in specific directions. Most people could become lost (and many still do despite all those measures).

Wayfinding is at the intersection of psychology, design, and architecture. David Owen explains as much in his The New Yorker article about the psychology of space. He explains how Times Square and The Oslo Opera House were both designed to influence human behavior on purpose. People underestimate how effective the use of space can be when it comes to compelling action. There’s a similar sentiment conveyed by Jonah Lehrer in his Wired piece on exploring the psychology of architecture. He observed that people spend a tremendous amount of time inside and around buildings yet we know so little about how they might influence us. The space we inhabit is often taken for granted.

You might assume that physical spaces are only influencing your actions and decisions, but what if they were also affecting your emotions? That’s just what BBC writer, Michael Bond, described last year in his story about the hidden ways architecture affects how you feel. He cites major metropolises like Tokyo, Japan and Vancouver that rely on spatial design tactics to improve public spaces. Most of his examples are benevolent, but one could see how the same tactics could be used in a subversive manner for questionable ends.

However, at least for the time being, there seem to be more people focused on utilizing this knowledge for good. Municipalities are only one example. City planners and real estate developers don’t do it alone, either. Best practices would suggest seeking out specialists in wayfinding signage design to gain consultative opinions and advice. Rick Wood at Metro already did you the favor of explaining how wayfinding technology makes it easier to deliver transit information to travelers. The benefits of proper wayfinding cannot be understated, especially when it comes to traveling and shared public spaces. People must know just where they are and how to get where they want to go. Eliminating that uncertainty is the objective of wayfinding. You know it’s working when everything unfolds in a seamless fashion, despite having little committed to memory.

These are all things to keep in mind during your presentation. You should also remind the audience to pay closer attention to wayfinding signage now that they understand it. The best presentations are those that inspire dialogue so be sure to save time for a Q&A section.

“Architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness.” – Frank Gehry

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