The Relatively Brief Yet Impactful Evolution of Wayfinding

This year, ASI celebrates its 50th anniversary, and one of our numerous core competencies throughout the years has been our wayfinding capabilities. Ok, I know that I just stated two obvious facts that you are aware of, but did you know that the term wayfinding was actually coined in 1960, just five years prior to the birth of ASI? It seems like a term that would have been around for much longer than just the past 55 years, and given this piece of information, it wouldn’t be wrong to conclude that the methodology of wayfinding is still in its infancy relative to the rich history of architectural design that has existed for thousands of years. In fact, many dictionaries still don’t recognize wayfinding as a word. Try typing wayfinding into MS Word or even into an email and see if it passes the application’s spell-checker.


Kevin Lynch, an American urban planner and author, gets credit for coining the term wayfinding in his book The Image of the City (1960). Mr. Lynch, who studied under Frank Lloyd Wright and received his Bachelor’s Degree in City Planning from MIT in 1947, wrote The Image of the City to present his findings from five year study of how users perceive and organize spatial information as they navigate through cities. The three cities that he studied for his book were Boston, Jersey City and Los Angeles. Kevin Lynch concluded that as individuals made their way through a city to a destination, they formed a cognitive map (or mental map) using five elements:

* Paths: Streets and sidewalks
* Edges: Perceived boundaries including walls and buildings
* Districts: Distinguishable large sections of a city
* Nodes: Focal points and intersections
* Landmarks: Readily identifiable objects used as reference points

Experts within the Architecture and Design community built on Lynch’s research with emphasis on defining wayfinding within the context of the building itself. Paul Arthur was a self-taught designer who became a Fellow and Founding member of SEGD, and he is often credited with coining the termsignage in the early 1960’s. Again, the time frame is a bit surprising and very close to when our company was established. However, the coining of the term signage came with some confusion as many architects and designers would assume that placing signs in a building equaled a wayfinding solution, which is not the case. Signage is a very important part of a wayfinding solution, but there’s so much more that goes into a wayfinding solution, and signage is what pulls the solution together.

Paul Arthur teamed with Romedi Passini, an architect and environmental psychologist, to write the book Wayfinding: People, Signs, and Architecture (1992). It was their attempt to fine-tune the definition of wayfinding, explaining that wayfinding is a spatial problem solving process. They explained that wayfinding is a two-part process. The first part involves mentally forming an action plan using one’s spacial orientation and various pieces of information about the building, and the second part involves implementing the action plan, moving toward the destination, and evaluating how well the building’s architecture and signage helped in guiding the user to their destination.

The definition of wayfinding has come a long way in 55 years, but 55 years means that this methodology is still in its relative infancy, with plenty of room for improvement based on examples of poor wayfinding that we regularly see. Wayfinding will undoubtedly take advantage of new technologies just as we’ve seen with new static and digital signage technologies. It’s interesting that our company began around the same time that the concepts of wayfinding and signage were introduced, and perhaps even more impressive is that over the decades we have developed a reputation as an industry leader in both areas, with the goal of continuing to lead the way for decades to come.

Questions? Contact andy.levine@asisignage.com

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