CommonGround is an ongoing exploration of the intersections between information, technology and design, supported by the iSchool and VPA.

What is wayfinding? If you ask Wikipedia, you will find this definition: “Wayfinding encompasses all of the ways in which people and animals orient themselves in physical space and navigate from place to place.”

If Wikipedia leaves a sour taste in your mouth, Romedi Passini, author of Wayfinding in Architecture, defines wayfinding as:

[T]he cognitive and behavioral abilities associated with purposefully reaching a desired physical destination.

Why is Wayfinding Important?

In a world where we constantly travel to new places at very high speeds and need to know where to go, designing spaces and cues to help us find our way is a very tricky and important job. And no, your GPS will not help you in all situations where wayfinding design is employed.

For an example, I want you to imagine you just got off of the airplane in a country where you can’t read or speak the language– you aren’t even familiar with the alphabet. Now, it is your unhappy task to navigate from the terminal to the baggage claim, and then ground transportation… you have 30 minutes. GO!

Some of you reading this have probably been in this exact situation and done just fine. Or maybe you’ve been in a situation where you did speak the language, could read the alphabet, and yet still had a really tough time figuring out where you were supposed to go.

Often these successes and failures in the flow of traffic and navigability can  be attributed to the wayfinding cues in the environment. Passini breaks down wayfinding as a problem solving activity with three components.

1. Make decisions to develop a plan in order to get where you want to go

I need to go to Wegman’s in Dewitt, but 690 is closed, so I will take W. Gennessee.

2. Execute said plan, making adjustments if necessary

I am driving in my car. Oh look at that sign! It says 690 is open again! I’ll go that way instead!

3. Process information while this is all happening so that you can make aforementioned decisions

(had I not seen the sign, I would have stayed with the plan)

This semester, I will explore a number of topics and adventures related to wayfinding, and how the informations designers (e.g. architects, city planners, curators, and more) help us figure out how to get where we are going every day.

There are many things that we interact with during our day-to-day life that include some sort of designed, wayfinding experience. Examples include navigating a highway junction, checking out at a grocery store (Whole Foods at Union Square, anyone??), or even walking through a large building.

Today, I will take you on an adventure to a particularly fun wayfinding experience I had a few months ago.

Wayfinding in Museums

Museums use wayfinding to guide visitors through exhibits and galleries in the way that delivers the lesson or meaning intended by the curator.

The Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, NY is a great example of excellent wayfinding design at a museum. The moment you get off the highway in Corning, NY, you can’t help but be aware that there is something a-typical that resides there. The signage directing you to the museum is consistent in color, font, scale… and it is larger than your average street sign. All of the wayfinding signals to lead you to CMOG are a larger than life. Basically, there is no way you can miss the CMOG. That’s success #1 of the Corning wayfinding design.

After you enter the campus, you’ve stepped into a careful designed environment. Even the parking lots are designed with a particular notion of flow and scale. And then, you make your way to the actual museum.

Image courtesy of

It’s a beautiful space inside, open, very big.

At the ticket desk (which is more like a grand bar) they hand you one of these: Corning Map. The wayfinding signals in real life look just like they do on the map, but scaled WAY UP! The exhibits themselves are very user-friendly, giving the visitors plenty of elbow-room to peruse the collections and presentations.

From my point of view, there is NO WAY you can get lost in this place, and even if you can’t speak the language (which many of the visitors do not), you can understand that there is a logical flow of making your way through the museum.

Why is This Wayfinding System So Successful?

  • Consistent
  • Clear visuals
  • Mapped & stepped
  • The architecture, wayfinding, and exhibition designs are clearly integrated

What are some particularly good (or super-terrible) experiences you’ve had with wayfinding recently? Share with us in the comments!