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Developing wayfinding systems in museums

How often do you end up lost in a museum? To some, stumbling across a treasure trove of unexpected artefacts sounds like a dream come true, but not knowing where you are can feel far less pleasurable if you’re trying to locate a particular object, gallery or exhibition. Worse still, what if you can’t even find the museum or its entrance in the first place?

Supporting visitors as they make their way to and around your museum is a complex task. That’s because museum sites and buildings are often agglomerations of very different pieces of architecture, because museum terminology can be inconsistent and obscure, and because visitors behave in myriad ways within museum spaces.

museum wayfinding

What is wayfinding?

Though the term wayfinding is often applied to maps and signage it really describes the actions people take in order to navigate their way. Danish designer Per Mollerup describes it as a problem-solving process used when someone is confronted with an environment and needs to make decisions, often while on the move.

Wayfinding encompasses more than simply getting from A to B. The types of problems people may need to solve include:

·       understanding where they are

·       identifying the options available to them

·       working out how best to reach a specific destination

·       checking whether they are on the right track

·       understanding when they have arrived, and

·       working out how to get back.

Think about how you navigate new museum spaces and you’ll probably use one or more different strategies. Perhaps you follow organised signs or tracks – so long as they are available. Perhaps you search for clues or instructions, which might involve asking someone for help. Either way, you’ll probably draw on prior knowledge of similar spaces (whether you make an implicit decision to do so or not). So, for instance, you might assume that a museum shop or café will be located somewhere on the ground floor. You might also gather information from maps or simply head in the same direction as most other visitors, trusting in the wisdom of the crowd. More than likely, you’ll use a combination of these approaches.

Given such a breadth of problem-solving strategies, it’s obvious that maps and signs aren’t the only methods museums can use to help people make sense of their buildings. Designing transparent, self-explanatory spaces can be just as important, as can equipping staff to anticipate and answer visitor queries. These tactics are forms of what Mollerup calls ‘wayshowing’, a term he defines as ‘all the activities and implements that make a location navigable’. The phrase ‘wayfinding systems’ is more often used to mean the same thing.

Like much good design, when wayshowing is done well it is barely noticeable; visitors enjoy a seamless experience with few pain points. When handled badly, it can cause stress and frustration. In some situations poor wayfinding systems create serious barriers to access, because visitors are not given – or an unable to decode or understand – sufficient information to inform their decisions.

To develop effective wayfinding systems, you’ll need an appreciation of the eccentricities of your unique architecture, some understanding of human psychology, and expertise in both user-focused design and succinct communication.

Six tips for improving museum wayfinding systems

1.     Consult front-of-house staff and volunteers

Staff and volunteers are an excellent source of insight about the information visitors need and where they become confused. More importantly, these are the people who will have to live with whatever changes you implement. As such, they are key stakeholders and should be involved as you develop and test possible solutions.

When CCD Design & Ergonomics were commissioned to develop wayfinding for the National Maritime Museum (NMM) in Greenwich, south-east London, their first port of call was the NMM front-of-house team. In workshops with these staff, CCD learned that visitors struggled to find facilities in the Museum.

CCD investigated this further by observing visitors as they completed specific navigational tasks and discussing their experiences. In the final wayfinding system, cafés, shops and toilets are highlighted in blue on every Museum map. The same colour demarcates a dedicated strip of facilities information placed at the foot of directional signs and totems.

museum signage

2.     Observe visitors in the space

Watching how people behave in a space, as CCD did, can identify the pain points that make navigation difficult. It may also highlight facilities, or entire areas of the museum, that visitors simply fail to notice.

At the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, Audience Viewpoints Consulting tracked the movements of 150 visitors, recording the route each visitor took, the amount of time they spent and which floors and galleries they went to. Around half the study participants were also interviewed about how their visit might be improved.

The study showed that most participants did not follow the Museum’s recommended path around the building, which meant many missed the main highlights of the collection. In addition, around a third of those who came to see a special exhibition did not visit any other displays in the Museum, while a third of all participants found some aspect of the building confusing.

Each of these findings could prompt potential wayfinding interventions, such as improving gallery signage, creating more connections between special exhibitions and other galleries, and increasing the visibility of highlight objects.

Like staff, visitors should be involved at all stages of the process, especially when you’re testing prototypes of new systems.

3.     Identify key audiences and goals

Different visitor groups will encounter different wayfinding problems and use different approaches to solving them. For instance, regular visitors may march past physical signs without a second glance, while visitors with access needs might consult your website before planning their trip. First-time visitors may feel overwhelmed as they struggle to orient themselves at the threshold, while people attending a meeting or conference may expect to ‘check-in’ at an obvious welcome desk.

Wayfinding systems ought to be designed with visitor needs in mind, but museums will have their own objectives too. When dn&co. redesigned the V&A’s wayfinding system, one project goal was to increase the speed at which visitors could reach ticketed exhibitions. This had two benefits: reducing congestion on the busy ground floor and protecting a core revenue stream for the institution.

Dn&co.’s solution was to use a specific colour for every sign relating to a paid-for show, all the way from outside the Museum to the exhibition entry point. Throughout the Museum, these coloured signs have top billing on maps, gallery listings and totem signage.

4.     Consider the full range of wayfinding needs specific to your museum

Wayfinding challenges can start before a visitor even enters the museum, since many people plan their visit in advance. Addressing the needs of these visitors entails crafting clear web copy, designing downloadable maps and providing online accessibility information. It also involves thinking about external signage, which should be both welcoming and informative.

manchester art gallery

As part of a new wayfinding scheme for Manchester Art Gallery, Holmes Wood designed huge banners to hang outside the Gallery’s grand – and potentially intimidating – Victorian building. Emblazoned with the Gallery name and the words’ free entry’ these banners identify the space while also answering potential questions, such as ‘do I need to pay?’, ‘what’s inside?’ and ‘is this a place for me?’, thanks to the simple yet inviting words, ‘Welcome’, ‘Explore’, ‘Discover’ and ‘Relax’. Following the banners’ installation, the number of spontaneous visits increased dramatically, and many visitors cited them as their main source of information about the Gallery.

Thinking through similar questions at the threshold to your museum or in individual rooms, should help you identify a range of needs that could be addressed by wayfinding solutions, from helping people understand where they are, and what they can see nearby, to directing them to cloakrooms and buggy parks.

Questions like this should always factor in the specific architecture of the space. For instance, despite its status as the largest contemporary art museum in the US, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) in North Adams can be hard to find, because its entrance is not obvious from the road.

museum wayfinding

When OverUnder developed a wayfinding system for MassMoCA, they positioned a giant, three-dimensional name sign not – as you might expect – on the entrance itself, but atop a nearby building with greater visibility.

5.     Be consistent

People find wayfinding systems intuitive when each element has a consistent look, placement and function. If in one room you place the name of a gallery half-way up the wall, to the immediate left of the entrance, it’s helpful to do the same in every room. Similarly, if the name of the gallery is printed in black, upper-case 24-pt Helvetica on a square white background, this approach should be echoed in every room. That way, visitors learn what sort of information is delivered via signs that look similar, while also knowing where to look to find that information when they need it.

If there are hierarchies of information, this should also be handled in a consistent manner, as should the names of locations in the museum. This may mean you need to consider renaming some spaces, as the Royal Air Force Museum in Hendon, north London, did during its recent redevelopment. Previously, it was unclear whether all the buildings on the former airfield were part of the Museum. In the RAF Museum’s new wayfinding system each separate structure is called ‘Hangar 1’, ‘Hangar 2’ and so on, a straightforward strategy that unites all the buildings within the same visitor experience.

It’s just as important to develop an approach that is consistent with wayfinding systems beyond the museum. Even your most ardent fans spend more time in other locations than in your institution. Your visitors may visit other cultural venues, but they’ll also go to places like supermarkets, shopping malls, schools, parks, hospitals and airports. If you want to create a seamless experience, your maps, signage and other wayfinding strategies need to align with how people find their way around other spaces. So, for instance, it makes more sense to use familiar icons for facilities like toilets, rather than developing new illustrations of your own.

6.     Be open, accessible and flexible

Wayshowing is all about facilitating people’s navigational decision-making. Like an encouraging mentor, the tone in which information and instructions are shared should be positive and welcoming rather than restrictive. More fundamentally, wayfinding systems ought to be accessible to all visitors, whether they can see, read or understand written signs. To facilitate this, many museums make use of icons, particularly to identify facilities.

Images can also help visitors interpret what they will find in specific galleries. At the NMM, totems and directional signs include photographs alongside each gallery name, which are designed to encourage exploration around the Museum. The AHOY! interactive gallery for under 7s is represented by two young children playing with an exhibit, while a gallery about polar exploration features a penguin. The floor plan of the Field Museum in Chicago, which is available in ten different languages, makes use of line illustrations of animals, dinosaurs and an Egyptian sarcophagus for easy identification of some of its galleries.

At a more intrinsic level, gallery design has a role to play here. When the National Centre for Craft & Design wanted to prioritise intellectual access for visitors with sight loss, the resulting gallery design used contrasting, non-reflective colours on walls and furniture, to aid navigation through the space. Bright yellow, consistently lit, textured tiles, similar to those used at pedestrian crossings, were also installed on the grey floor. These set out a clear wayfinding path to guide visitors to specific points in the exhibition.

Lastly, any system needs to be flexible enough to cope with a range of different events, changing exhibitions and disruptive building work. This might mean producing additional signs for special events, or developing a system that allows for easy updates of individual signs.

The best wayfinding systems should, of course, allow for – and even encourage – aimless wandering and serendipitous discovery, providing just enough, unobtrusive information for those who want it, while enabling others to delight in losing themselves.

About the author – Anna Faherty

Anna Faherty is a writer, trainer and consultant who collaborates with museums to find and share stories in an eclectic range of exhibition, digital and print projects. She shares her passion for audience-focused approaches to content development with students at City University, London and University of the Arts London.

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