The History of Wayfinding

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Find out how it all started, what solutions are currently revolutionizing physical spaces, and what to prepare for in the future. 

Wayfinding, albeit in its primitive form, has been around for centuries. For thousands of years, humankind has needed to be directed to where they need to go, whether it was to a safe shelter or to notify a particular hunting ground, those that lived long before we did, needed signs and directions just as much as we do. 

Wayfinding today 

Wayfinding has come into its own with all new places such as airports, train stations, hospitals, and shopping centers being built with good wayfinding for the physical environment in mind. 

The past 50 years in comparison to the rest of wayfinding history has seen huge improvements and developments, mainly down to the relentless pace of economic growth combined with advancements in technology, science, and even psychology. 

Increasingly complex structures have become commonplace in our everyday lives, all of which require adequate wayfinding signage and even digital wayfinding solutions.

Wayfinding technology has become more advanced through the use of interactive wayfinding kiosks, dynamic maps and, indoor positioning systems.

Another reason for the development of the products listed above is that our planet is becoming increasingly globalized, demanding the use of wayfinding designs that are user-friendly (symbols, graphics, etc.) and in the process, we have created a universal language.

For example, 1 in 4 adults in the US have an accessibility need, which could make navigating around your facility more difficult. Additionally, use wayfinding to not just help visitors, but staff who work in complex and everchanging environments.

But where did it all begin? 

Different cultures commonly found ways to use their environment to navigate. Ancient Polynesian civilization is said to be the first to have studied the stars for navigation or even memorized wave and cloud patterns and depending on the formation of the pattern, they could indicate how close or far away they were from the land.

Greek and Roman civilizations developed what you could describe as the foundations for modern wayfinding solutions. 

Accessibility came into their wayfinding, even two millennia ago. They focused more on signage or signs that consisted of images and words rather than stars or wave patterns to guide people. 

Illustrations were mainly used to help the more illiterate people of those times, particularly the lower social classes.

Most signs were intended for businesses such as taverns or inns as well as weapon smiths, shoe stores or workshops, the reason is to make them far more identifiable amongst the complexity of large Roman and Greek cities.

Skip forward a few thousand years to approximately 1900 when motorcars began to take off and the world began to realize it needed traffic engineers.

These were the people who began to seriously focus on proper signage design for our roads and outdoor areas, but the developers of office buildings, shopping malls, and other large pedestrian areas were reluctant to conform in this way.

Then in 1970, The Society for Environmental Graphic Design was founded, prompting designers to begin to study how to best navigate and direct people through public spaces. 

These designers argued that buildings shouldn’t be developed just to fulfill the ambitious visions of architects but with the idea of connecting humans better with these environments and this particular field earned the name “Wayfinding”, although the term was first used in 1960 by architect Kevin Lynch

Picture from Kevin Lynch's book that inspired modern wayfinding

The future of wayfinding

Ironically, just as the development of wayfinding signs is gathering momentum, the arrival of new methods of wayfinding could make them obsolete. 

Indoor Positioning Systems (IPS) and Global Positioning Systems (GPS) have evolved us to the point where we don’t even need to read signs, but rather just to listen to helpful voice notifications for instructions.

Indoor navigation has greatly enhanced the user experience for patients and visitors in hospitals, places that are believed by the masses to sometimes have inadequate wayfinding. 

Now visitors can navigate from the point of their own home and follow a structured path to a venue or location with real-time updates. 

Once inside the complex venue, they can be directed, turn-by-turn, floor-by-floor to the exact room they need to be in, through the use of blue dot mobile apps.

With technology advancing at the rate it is, it’s only likely that we will see large investments in digital wayfinding from all sectors across the globe. with companies such as Google integrating AR into Google Maps, enhancing the outdoor GPS experience further by adding interactive points of interest. 

Although the world has seen a development in universally understood wayfinding systems and digital signage, it is likely that as technology evolves, so will the way we navigate our indoor and outdoor environments.

By implementing digital wayfinding within your facility, you can assist your visitors in successfully navigating your venue. Find out more about digital wayfinding here.


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