Walk This Way

Roman Mars: This is 99 Percent Invisible, I’m Roman Mars.

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Roman: In 2005, I took a job at WBEZ in Chicago and I was so excited to be moving there. I was excited about the job, of course, but I was also very excited about the grid. The streets of Chicago and the address numbering system are beautiful, starting from the zero-zero access point downtown, the streets conform to a rigid grid pattern where the major streets are exactly one mile apart and have address numbers which are multiples of 800. You don’t really have to be able to picture this but I know that if you know it, you’re nodding your head vigorously but just know that it’s amazing and I was mesmerized by it. So much so, that I made flash cards with Chicago street names on one side and the corresponding address number on the other so that my wife and I could quiz ourselves on the 2,000 mile road trip from San Francisco to Chicago. Yes, I was always like this. Division is 1200 North, Armitage is 2000 north and therefore 1 mile North of Division. After living in the jumble of San Francisco streets for years, we thought of moving to a place where people planned the City to help people know where they were and where they were going, soothed my lizard brain and gave me peace.

[music background]

Roman: As humans have developed cities and built environments, we have also needed to develop ways to find our way through them. Signage goes back at least as far as the Roman Empire. They constructed milestones along their roadways.

Sam Greenspan: Which is to say, if you’re relying on anything besides natural features to help you find your way around, you are relying on things made by people whose job it is, is to help us figure out how to get from all of our respective point A’s to our B’s.

Roman: Our producer Sam Greenspan would like me to tell you that he has a fantastic sense of direction.

Sam: I really do! Sure, I get lost sometimes, I’ll admit it. It’s the worst. I get so mad at myself when that happens but now, my life is completely different ever since I started thinking about what it means that Wayfinding is a thing.

Roman: Wayfinding, in a sense, is a branch of environmental graphic design concerned with helping people find their way.

Sam: I love knowing this because now, when I get lost at a hospital or in a complicated freeway interchange or at an airport, I have someone to blame.

Roman: Yeah, that’s one way to look at it but a lot of times it has nothing to do with the signage, user error does apply sometimes.

Sam: Fair enough, let me introduce you to Jim Harding.

Jim Harding: Well my name is Jim Harding. I’m an Environmental Graphic Designer. Basically I tell people where to go.

Roman: There’s an Environmental Graphic Designer or a Wayfinder or maybe just a kid with a magic marker behind every sign. Turn here to merge on to the 101, concourse E is this way, bathrooms straight ahead.

Sam: But there is a lot, lot more to Wayfinding than just signage.

Jim: Signage is probably the least effective tool to Wayfinding, good architecture is one of the best.

Sam: It’s not that Jim hates science.

Roman: Rather, the best forms of Wayfinding are, shall we say, invisible. They’re baked into the built environment.

Sam: I first heard about Jim Harding through a writer named David Zweig.

David Zweig: I’m David Zweig. I’m a writer. My book is called “Invisibles: The power of anonymous work in an age of relentless self-promotion.”

Sam: David Zweig’s book is a series of portraits of people whom he refers to as invisibles.

David: Invisibles are people who are highly skilled professionals, people who are really important to whatever enterprise or endeavor that they are a part of, that their work really has a big effect on the overall outcome, be it who are largely unknown never thought of by the public or the end user.

Sam: Jim Harding, Director of Environmental Graphics for Gresham, Smith and Partners is one such invisible.

David: Jim Harding is one of the best in the business.

Roman: Jim worked on the new international terminal at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia, the world’s busiest. 100 million passengers move through it every year, all of them needing to know where to go.

Jim: Sight lines are so important because if you can see your destination, you don’t have to rely on science.

Sam: I met Jim at the Atlanta Airport and he walked me through some of the cutting edge Wayfinding techniques that he employed at the new International Terminal, like right when you walk in from curb side. The physical space tells you everything you need to know about how to move through it without you even realizing it. Let’s start with the first thing you want when you enter at the airport, the ticket counter.

Jim: They’re not lined up on a 90 degree access, they’re angled, okay?

Sam: A lot of times, the ticket counter just meets you head on when you walk in and then you’re left to wonder, “Okay, do I go left or right? Where is the sign for my gate?” But these angled ticket counters suddenly push you in the right direction.

Jim: That angle steers you down and around the ticket counter and heading toward the security checkpoint.

Sam: As the counter is pushing you, you’re also getting pulled by this giant three-storey glass window that looks out onto the tarmac.

Jim: You see planes, you see the apron, the jet way where the planes are parking and so intuitively, you’re drawn to your plane because that’s what you want to go. You want to get on that plane, right?

Sam: And there are less obvious cues too like the tile pattern in the floor.

David: Absolutely. Well you see the grid instead of being on a 90 degree access, it’s on a 45.

Sam: And these tiles going off at a 45 degree angle, they just beckon you to follow them.

Roman: And so if you do that, you inevitably head towards security.

Sam: But there’s even more going on in the floor than that, and here’s where this gets a little bananas.

Jim: You turn around and look back here Sam, you see where the black starts at the door —

Sam: Yeah.

Jim: — at the curb side?

Sam: There’s another set of tiles inside the dominant grid pattern that I didn’t even notice at first. It starts black and then it’s joined by a set of yellow gold-ish tiles that kind of cleaves out this corridor of negative space which cuts straight through the hall, going directly to security.

Jim: So, if I already have my ticket, I’m not checking any bags. I don’t need to check in on the counter. I just follow the yellow brick road so to speak.

Voice Over: [follow the yellow brick road]

Sam: That’s amazing! That’s exactly what it is, the yellow brick road [laughter]. This is exactly what this is!

David: The little yellow white bulb.

Roman: Yeah.

David: Just click it on, yeah.

Roman: Its pretty cool, and all this Jim says is 100% intentional.

Jim: Absolutely.

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Jim: The interior designers went through a number of floor and pattern, designing schemes until they arrived at this one.

Sam: On the other side of security, we enter what Jim Harding calls the ‘transition hall’. Here’s where a traveler has some decisions to make. Whether to find the gate here or whether to get to another concourse, you take a subway called the ‘plane train’ for that, or whether they head to baggage claim. This is the part where passengers are going to be asking themselves —

Jim: Where am I? Where am I going? How do I know the best way to get there?

Sam: Jim says that in these places where there are decisions to be made, this is where Wayfinding is needed the most.

Jim: Yeah, the visual Wayfinding which is the signage, you know, that you can see it, you can read it. You can interpret it, find your way around.

Sam: There’s also an information desk and a new-fangled interactive display. I walk with Jim towards the gates. Here’s of 7 and 9 so it looks like the odds are on the left, and like we’re good.

David: All right! So, you’re into the Wayfinding [inaudible].

Sam: These concourse is pretty streamlined, elegance even. But at older less well designed concourses which are definitely present at some other parts of the ATL Airport, this is where you’d find yourself in the visual moras.

Roman: You’ve seen this before, neon signs and brightly colored displays all trying to get you to buy magazines or neck pillows or hot dogs.

Jim: You have advertising. You have concessions, marketing, all those visual images compete with the primary message of just how to navigate the airport.

Sam: And so the key here is to make the signage stand out by being dull and drab and plain.

Jim: Yeah, that’s very neutral. It’s a neutral pallet gray and white basically.

Sam: So you can spot the signs just by tuning out all the glitz. Now even though this new international terminal is fairly minimal, there are still people trying to sell you stuff. Just beyond the transition hall towards the gates, there’s this two level commerce area. There’s shopping at ground level and then up an escalator are some food options, and of course it’s all angled perfectly so you have a direct line of sight into all of the shops as you’re walking by. Is that an intentional design to have a shopping down below and the food up above?

Jim: Yes.

Sam: Why is that?

Jim: Well, more curb appeal for your retail tenants. People, if they’re hungry, they’re going to go find the food wherever it is, right?

Sam: [inaudible].

Jim: Here’s the thing: airports, they struggle to generate revenue.

Sam: Really?

Jim: Yeah! And so anything they could do to help increase non aeronautical revenue, things it or not, generated by the airplane or an airline. So, improving their concessions and retail, they get a percentage of all those sales.

Sam: And that’s when I realized why there are people like Jim Harding who are paid to do this work. It’s not just an airports want us to have a pleasant experience, it’s because there’s money on the table. Think about it. Say you’re trying to make a connecting flight, you don’t have a lot of time, you don’t really know where you’re going.

Jim: I’m stressed and I don’t think I’m going to catch my flight. Am I going to take time to open my wallet? Heck no! But if I’m cool, calm, collected. I found my gate, I know where I’m going, I’m more likely to stop and buy whatever. So, that’s where Wayfinding has a real financial impact to an airport’s bottom-line.

Sam: And so it turns out, Wayfinding isn’t just about helping you figure out how to get where you want to go. It’s about the steering the masses anywhere that companies hiring the Wayfinders want them masses to be steered. And what’s more, if your consumer choices aren’t going to make money for the powers that be, like inside of a closed system like an airport, don’t plan on them making it easy for you. David Zweig, the writer who introduced me to Jim Harding, he noticed this kind of thing too.

David: Their job isn’t always about creating the best system for us, the traveler. Sometimes, it’s who’s paying their bills. When I flew to Florida with my family, we flew into Fort Lauderdale and we foolishly chose an offsite car rental company.

Roman: Oh, rookies.

David: Yeah, a big mistake! We thought like, “Oh, I say it’s okay to take a shuttle bus, you’ll be there in two minutes.” Well what happened is, when you arrive there, there’s huge signs for Heritage, Avis and all the companies who are there. If you’re trying to find the offsite car rental companies, good luck. And then if you’re trying doing that with two little kids in tow, whoof.

Sam: David mentioned this to Jim Harding.

David: I said, “Jim, this seems like a Wayfinding failure.” He said, “Well, the airport isn’t far more interested in helping out the people who are paying them who have onsite facilities. They have no incentive to have you leave the airport, to go to someone else.

Jim: They generate no revenue.

David: Right.

Jim: So there you go. It’s almost like second class citizen. Yeah.

David: That’s not to say though, that there’s necessarily a dichotomy between capitalism and good user experience.

Jim: Why do we do what we do for a living as Wayfinders? I think it is to — in our little way, to improve the overall quality of life that customer experience, that passenger experience. And so you work on a project like the International Terminal here in Atlanta, we worked on it for years and after all that time, it’s built and you get to walk through it. You see it like we are today. You see people using the space, understanding the space. They aren’t stressed or freaking out about missing their flight and it’s just like, “Okay. Wow, it all works. We did a good job.” and you just come away with a nice sense of satisfaction.

Voice Over: Welcome aboard to plane train. Please hold on. This train is departing.”

Roman: In theory, way finding should work whether you’re literate in it or not. But learning to see the subtle Wayfinding cues in the belt landscape can help you understand how you make your decisions, or it can make you question if you’re the one even making your own decisions at all.

Sam: After I parted ways with the Jim Harding, I passed the food court and I noticed, right outside in the floor were these big black curvy tiles and they actually seemed to be steering people towards the concessions. So you know, next time you find yourself at an airport food court eating a Cinnabon that you didn’t even want, check out the signage, the shape of the tiling, the height of the ceiling, the quality of the light. It may just be that you have an environmental graphic designer to blame.

Roman: But you know, user error does apply.

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Roman: 99 Percent Invisible was produced this week by Sam Greenspan with Katie Mingle, Avery Trufelman and me, Roman Mars. We are a project of 91.7 local public radio KALW in San Francisco and produced at the Offices of Arcsine, our favorite architecture firm in beautiful downtown Oakland, California.

Comments (16)

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  1. Rich O.

    I just want to say “kudos!” on using Phillip Glass (Koyaanisqatsi) as background to your opening on describing “The Grid”. Perfect match.

  2. Josh

    In my tiny hometown, it was a dry county. To find the liquor store that was a 45 minute drive, all you had to do was follow the blue hospital arrows. They started about a mile away from our own hospital and lead you straight to liquor. I always felt this was intentional. Thanks to this episode I know who to thank! ;)

  3. I think that acknowledging Michael HAYDEN = the creator of the “SKYS THE LIMIT” (Light + Music), installation between concourses ‘C’ and’B’ at United Airline’s ‘Terminal One’, at Chicago, O’Hare International Airport: would have been appropriate … since it was installed over a quarter Century ago; and intentionally has NO Signage NOR Public Address Announcements, within it’s ~800′ length: a respite from the advertising bombardment one encounters, almost everywhere else!

  4. Thank you for an episode near and dear to my heart.

    I’m so glad wayfinding is thing now as well. I have a professional interest as a user experience designer and personal interest as a dyslexic who often ends up in the wrong direction when the wayfinding and signage break down for me.

    A few months ago I started my own blog on the subject of bad wayfinding, confusing signage (that’s why it’s better to bake what you can into the architecture), and information design more generally.

    I’m trying to coin the term “waylosing” (waylosing.com and @waylosing were both free!) and invite you to visit me at waylosing.com and submit or suggest some examples of bad and good wayfinding (gotta show good examples, can’t all be negative) and especially if you’ve got a story about what works, doesn’t, and what could be done.

    Even with the best of intensions and some nice visual design, wayfinding signage is often has minor inconsistencies and slightly conflicting information that give people like me pause, or make a mistake, but often just needs a quick tweak. Things like changing the case (capitalized on one sign, all caps on another) punctuation, abbreviations, and especially inconsistent date formatting can easily trip me up.

    Love the show!

  5. SD

    I don’t know if this is a real thing or has a name (future episode?), but I’ve always been convinced that just the opposite goes on: Places designed so that you don’t know where you’re going or how to get out, so as to give up and impulse spend. Minor example: mega-box stores that provide no entrance map or internal maps and poor department signage. That can’t be just accidentally forgotten. I think the primo examples are Las Vegas casinos. I once had time to burn alone in LV, and not being particularly interested in gambling, I thought I’d just make my way down the Strip wandering from casino through casino and people-watch. Although I have a great sense of direction, I found that, invariably, upon getting about 20 yards into a casino, I was immediately disoriented and could neither find my way back out or to another exit or predict what direction was the opposite end of the casino. (Don’t know how they square this with the Fire Marshall, if indeed intentional.) Would be cool to know if these design suspicions are real.

  6. Jill Pedersen

    Great show – this is one of my all time favorites. Now I can’t wait for my next multi-airport trip to see how they do compared to Atlanta. Also, spell-check: ‘queue’ should be ‘cue’. I love spelling too!

  7. TimJ

    Just listened to “Walk This Way” the beginning about Roman moving to Chicago with its grid struck a chord with me. I grew up in Milwaukee and Chicago, both cities laid out on a perfect N/S, E/W grid. As a consequence I always knew what direction was north (and where Lake Michigan was relative to my present location). Some years ago I moved to Amsterdam where nothing is straight, my street runs in a vaguely northeast/southwest direction, its taken me years to get used to it!

  8. Michael

    Atlantan here, the International Terminal is so incredibly perfect. I never thought of the sign-less design being what made it so awesome.

  9. Tori

    Your kiddo has a good taste in books. Though personally I enjoy finding my way by Amber Spyglass.

  10. Betsey

    This was a great episode – but I was a little disappointed that there was no mention of the interior architects/designers (myself being one of them) who are often the ones specifying the finish materials, flooring patterns, ceiling systems, lighting, etc. on most projects. The closing line of

    “…check out the signage, the shape of the tiling, the height of the ceiling, the quality of the light. It may just be that you have an environmental graphic designer to blame.”

    definitely stung a little bit!

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  12. Sonya

    I enjoyed this episode and to be honest this the first time I hear of this term wayfinding. I find it interesting because it is a way of directing the flow of traffic to a certain direction with out any congestion. I feel this is how our library works it has a friendly flow to it. Thanks

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