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Using Nature for Wayfinding Solutions

“I think that I shall never see/a signpost lovely as a tree…”

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Forgive my pathetic attempt at rewording one of the most memorable lines in all of literary history, but the occasion seemed to call for it. Too often people immediately think of traditional signs, billboards, digital networks, and the usual hardware and signware when thinking of wayfinding solutions for landscapes, streetscapes, campuses, and other outdoor spaces. In many cases, though, rather than digging more holes in the ground and planting yet another signpost, nature itself can provide the perfect and far more appropriate plan. Wayfinding designers can thus review the environment to make note not only of existing structures but of their potential for navigational utility as well. They can then work with the architects and clients to create an orientation system for the facility that will guide visitors and staff to their intended destinations smoothly and efficiently as well as provide an environment that enhances and extends the facility’s branding and visual style.

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Streetscapes are perfect examples of the wayfinding benefits of nature at work. Singapore’s famed Orchard Road, which alternately narrows and widens as it cuts across the heart of the city-state’s main retail and business district, is lined with immense, leafy trees and thick bushes, particularly near the busiest intersections. The foliage creates a natural barrier between the heavily-trafficked street and the pedestrian-packed sidewalks; indeed, the bushes are so fat and, well, bushy, that it would be nearly impossible to jaywalk across certain areas of Orchard Road unless you were a ready for some serious pole-jumping. The lush streetscape reminds visitors and residents that Singapore isn’t called the “Garden City” for nothing. Using trees and bushes to demarcate boundaries is one of the more common ways of taking advantage of nature for navigational and landmark purposes, but they serve other functional purposes as well in many environments, including healthcare institutions. In some Alzheimer’s facilities, for example, designers studied the residents’ use of outdoor spaces, sun conditions, the nature of the landscape, and other environmental factors and determined that well-planned gardens would encourage residents to not only spend more time outdoors but also allow them to independently navigate their surroundings with relative ease. Other hospitals take full advantage of natural light – using skylights, windows, large glass doors, and the like – to not only improve patient healing but also emphasize critical access points that might otherwise be overlooked by a visitor or staff member moving their way through the facilities.  This isn’t to say that “natural” wayfinding doesn’t need traditional signage as we know it. Signage that supports environmental design and navigation and which reflects the facility’s branding and image would blend the function and form of the wayfinding strategy. If carefully executed, it might even improve navigation and orientation by enhancing visual cues.

Not every project may lend itself well to incorporating environmental elements into the design, but you might be surprised to find that even building interiors can be improved upon by taking into account lighting, shadows, planters, and even trees when creating a wayfinding strategy. With a little creativity and a solid understanding of every inch of the environment and how people use it, it can be done, and beautifully.

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