Provocations through Signage and Wayfinding

November 17th marked our last walk and workshop in our Re-Imagining Wayfinding series this Autumn, and what better way to end our series with “another wet one,” as one of our participants quickly pointed out.  Rainclouds and umbrellas became the apparent theme throughout our workshops which was neatly summarized by that drizzly Saturday afternoon. However, the weather certainly never dampened our efforts or spirits.  As a matter of fact, we were encouraged more than ever to systematically prepare for each of our workshops in advance for whatever fate would throw at us.

Never mind the weather, many signed up and few backed down; people were ready to participate, including many returnees from walks from the previous weeks.  As registrants filed in, they were quickly introduced to Michelle and Danielle of Cygnus Group, a wayfinding consulting group in Yaletown that plans, designs, and implements wayfinding projects across the country.  Michelle, a Junior Project Manager, and Danielle, a Communications Manager, come from different backgrounds but are clearly joined by a common interest in design and wayfinding.  In their introduction, they presented the public with three layers of classification for wayfinding devices: deliberate, adaptive, and incidental.  Deliberate wayfinding deals with direct signage, arrows, and maps which help guide us across spaces.  Adaptive wayfinding devices such as public squares or public artwork serve as landmarks which help in navigation on a secondary level.  Finally, incidental devices are cues from our environment which often unintentionally helps us to find our way, many times through conjuring up memories.  Examples include trees, foliage, architecture, textures, or even smells and sounds.

After the introduction, we set out in our rain gear and headed towards our first stop in front of the Roundhouse Community Centre at Drake Street.  The first example of signage we encountered was the conspicuous blue parking sign above the inconspicuous white Roundhouse sign pointing in the direction to the entrance.  This introduced a recurring topic throughout the walk: what wayfinding resources exist in relation to the Roundhouse?  In other words, where in the world is the front entrance to the Roundhouse?  People quickly admitted their difficulty in finding the entrance to the community centre on their first visit, myself included.  Whether in building and site design, or whether due to lack of signage, the small, white sign certainly did not help as it felt like the last thing we would notice on the street.  If there was something we noticed, it was the large blue sign for parking which eclipsed all other signage on the street – ironic, as I assume a large proportion of visitors to the Roundhouse would be locals either transiting or walking.

We proceeded to the Canada Line station in Yaletown, a popular stop along many of our past walks.  This time, however, we discussed the importance of symbols and colours.  One child participant was quick to jump in: “What does the T stand for?”.  According to Translink, it stands for ‘transit’; the funny thing is that from the beginning, I’ve always thought it stood for ‘train’ as a short form for Skytrain.  I saw it being rolled out into Skytrain stations first (well, technically the Canada Line, but how many people really call it that?) and associated it first and foremost with rapid transit (like many other systems around the world using M for ‘metro’).  Most people agreed with the general meaning of the ‘T’ in its representation for public transit, but I think the embodiment of that symbol linguistically and experientially would be quite different in less obvious signage.  One example given was the typical informational sign marked by the letter ‘i’.  I say typical because it is known the word information shares similar cognates with almost all languages in Europe, all starting with ‘i’.  But how does this symbol work and function in other places?  Text or textual symbols, needless to say, can be installed with cultural and linguistic barriers.  Do pictograms solve these problems?  Catherine brought up this point about the use of these sorts of text-based signage versus pictograms in Vancouver.  This reminded me of the debate on the EXIT sign in the United States and Canada.  In these two countries, the majority of exit signs are red and in block letters while in much of the rest of the world it is a green symbol.  Which works better for wayfinding?  Arguably, green works as a colour of safety and the pictogram of a green running man appears to be more universal; at the same time, in North America, the red exit sign can be viewed as an image or symbol due to its familiarity.

We crossed the street onto the other side of Mainland and continued down the one-way street onto the elevated sidewalk, a remnant of loading docks for trains that passed through the area nearly a century ago.  Eventually we made our way to Homer Street, where Michelle and Danielle discussed the street’s developing specialization in design-related boutiques, firms, and galleries.  Following the likes of West 4th Avenue (Ski & Snowboard), South Granville (Home Decor and Furniture), and Main (boutique and second hand clothing), the clustering of similar businesses in Vancouver was always a spatial phenomenon I have enjoyed and been curious about.  The agglomeration of high-tech companies in the San Francisco-San Jose bay area (or Bangalore, India, to take this point abroad), for example, shows this phenomenon at a much larger scale.  The large pool of skilled technicians in the area stimulates a cross-pollination of ideas and an understanding through shared technical expertise.  In a similar manner, the development of special commercial districts in cities, including Vancouver, fosters shared ideas as well as healthy competition.  This also becomes an interesting opportunity for branding of neighbourhoods or districts, which can include forms of wayfinding.

An interesting aspect of wayfinding that Michelle mentioned in her concluding comments was the introduction of mapping applications that are changing the ways we navigate the city.  GPS and Google Maps, to name two prominent examples, drastically alter not only the way we move and wayfind but also on who we depend on for information and data.  Attention is diverted away from traditional paper maps and arguably also from the natural (or unnatural) environment, and instead, directed towards screens and computer information systems, often dependent on WiFi, GPS signals, battery, and actually, for the most part – Google.  I am speaking specifically about mapping technologies on a mobile platform because that seems to be where the growth is (Google Maps is already 40% mobile).  On a side note, GPS systems have famously instigated accidents where drivers have followed a right turn (or wrong turn) only to end up in a ditch or another accident.  Apparently, wayfinding can not only be quite dangerous, but also affect your brain.

That being said, Google Maps was, and still is, a brilliant invention. I certainly cannot imagine living without it now that we have its wisdom guiding us around familiar and unfamiliar cities and continents.  Layer upon layer of information can be displayed, not displayed, or stacked to show its informational brainpower.  Street View, for example, felt utterly intrusive on our privacy, but we seemed to embrace it nonetheless, if not for practicality then out of sheer human curiousity.  One interesting new ‘layer’ I discovered while mapping Yaletown one afternoon was the surprising new depth that Street View offered; in fact, you were able to step off the street entirely and then step into a store where products and other items were clearly visible in 360 degrees.  This seems to take ‘online shopping’ to another level.  You may be able to view a structured catalogue online but now you can physically see the store layout and products on the shelf.  How does this alter how we find our way on a personal scale and how we think of systems of wayfinding and signage on a larger scale?

As we headed back towards our starting point, we gathered together one last time by the entrance of the Roundhouse Community Centre.  Again, some of us shared our early difficulties with finding that tricky entry on our first visit.  What are the solutions?  Is it simply a matter of signage or is the confusion embedded into the site and architecture of the Roundhouse?  If a physical solution is beyond the realms of what is possible, could we potentially move into the digital realm to augment our reality?

Carter Xin