Wayfinding and Navigation: What’s the Difference?

Wayfinding and navigation are related concepts, but they aren’t exactly the same. So, what’s the difference? Wayfinding, the broader term, refers to how people find their way around environments. Navigation refers to the specific means by which people find their way, including route navigation, landmark navigation, and map navigation.

Landmark Navigation

Landmark navigation occurs when a person selects a particular landmark to use as a navigational anchor. This type of navigation can be seen when people are in unfamiliar buildings. They often select, say, the Information Desk as their landmark, from which they can venture farther out by degrees and to which they can easily return if they start feeling unsure of themselves. As people become more familiar with an environment, they select additional landmarks to serve as anchors, which then help them navigate the environment as a whole. Landmark navigation is a simple, basic means by which people accomplish wayfinding. To help landmark navigators, built environments can provide many kinds of visual cues to serve as landmarks, whether through their structure, through architectural signage, or both.

Route Navigation

When people become comfortable with landmark navigation as a means of wayfinding, many of them progress to route navigation. People who use route navigation learn the routes that connect one place to another in the context of the environment. The process tends to build on itself as people become more comfortable with multiple routes and connect them all together. Once people have created a comprehensive route navigation system in their minds, it can encompass a complete environment, whether one built facility, a campus with multiple buildings, or an entire city. Route navigation is more abstract in its methodology than landmark navigation. Both architectural design elements and signage that employs directional navigation can be utilized to help route navigators easily learn and connect new routes to aid their wayfinding.

Map Navigation

Some people progress from route navigation to map navigation, the most sophisticated of the three types of navigation. Map navigation isn’t just about physical maps. Rather, it adds the spatial element to the point (that is, the landmark) and the line (that is, the route). Map navigators build up a map of their environments in their minds that includes landmarks, routes, and the spaces between them. Digital signage kiosks can aid map navigators in building their mental maps, even in brand new environments.

With all these elements in place, map navigators can move around their environments with confidence. When new structures – or buildings – arrive on the scene, map navigators can seamlessly incorporate them into their mental models. And here we come to what is perhaps the most obvious distinction between the concepts of wayfinding and navigation. People’s navigational skills can progress in sophistication over time, resulting in greater and greater efficiency with wayfinding.

Wayfinding is an umbrella term which includes the various means by which people not only navigate but also orient themselves in their environments. The terms wayfinding and navigation differ in their scope: wayfinding is the overall concept, and navigation is one of the means by which people can find their way. Good wayfinding systems contain diverse elements that aid each type of navigator, whether landmark, route, or map.

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