You Are Here: Interview with author Colin Ellard (part 3 of 3)

Posted in Behavioral Science, Points of Interest, White Paper on March 23rd, 2011 by Mark VanderKlipp – Be the first to comment

This is the third in a series of interviews with Colin Ellard, author of “You Are Here – Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon but Get Lost at the Mall.” When the book came out in 2009, we first read it cover to cover, then sent an email to Colin to ask more specific questions about wayfinding in general. We hope you enjoy these excerpts from our interview.

We know that different environments call for different types of wayfinding, given the typical visitor’s need. What research do you have that speaks to a vistor’s state of mind, and thus their ability to accept wayfinding information?

We all know that our emotional state

We all know that our emotional state has a huge influence on our ability to navigate.

This is an area that interests me greatly and that we’re just getting started with. We all know that our emotional state has a huge influence on our ability to navigate (as design professionals, you know this better than anyone). We call this a “positive feedback loop;” as we become more anxious, our wayfinding skills deteriorate further still. This is compounded by the fact that there is huge variability in natural wayfinding abilities, and we know that people who are weak navigators are more likely to become anxious.

In certain environments we’re going to be anxious anyway:

  • In a hospital, very few visitors are in a happy or relaxed state of mind
  • In an airport, we’re typically worried about security checks, finding the right gate and staying on schedule
  • In an unfamiliar city, security might be an additional concern

We know all of these things at an intuitive level, but what we don’t know yet is how different affective states might influence wayfinding abilities. Does anxiety make it less likely that you’ll notice landmarks? That you’ll lose track of how far you’ve walked? Does it make you less able to interpret a “You Are Here” map? Maybe all of these things, but maybe some more than others. These are critical things for an environmental graphic designer to know, and we can find answers to those kinds of questions with the tools we’re using in my lab.

We know there is wide variety among humans in their ability to navigate. How does one design for the mean, rather than the exception? And how do we determine that mean?

We’re just beginning to look at variability in navigational skills among average urban populations. The first step is to get some numbers to measure that variability; the next is to see what its constituents might be. There’s already some evidence that different individuals might be better or worse at using particular kinds of wayfinding tools.

For instance, if a person does well with landmarks, they will thrive in a complex setting that is brimming with easily distinguishable features. But that same person might fail in a more sparse environment where it’s necessary to develop an understanding of the geometry to navigate. Conversely, if a person is the kind of navigator who relies more on geometry, then a cluttered environment with lots of features might serve as a distraction. So I think a part of the answer to your question hinges on our understanding of where that variability comes from.

Many people assume that we’re losing the ability to navigate because of the “crutches” we’ve created. In the future, is this ability something we can rebuild as a society, or do we as designers just need to be more thoughtful – and more aware – to compensate for these deficiencies?

Did you know that there's a difference between true north and magnetic north?

Did you know that there's a difference between true north and magnetic north?

I’ve been asked about this a lot. There is at least one brain scientist who argues that GPS is the worst thing to have happened to the human brain since mercury. Well maybe that overstates it a bit, but there’s this idea that we are building more and more supportive environments and so we’re freeing people from the need to look after themselves, to know their place and understand their way as the ancients did.

I think there’s probably some truth to this. I respond by noting that we can think of many clever ways to subvert that kind of technology to our own ends if we want to. We design location-based games – geocaching for example – that might actually help people better navigate space. How many people knew that there was a difference between true north and magnetic north until the iPhone compass offered them a choice between the two? That’s one very simple example. Editor’s note: here’s how you find true north.

I’m not sure how relevant this is to environmental graphic designers, however. I suppose an argument might be that sometimes you should mess with people — get them lost on purpose just to encourage them to figure it out.  Maybe there’s a place for that, but certainly not in an airport or a hospital 🙂

So what’s next for you and your research team?

I think we’re really going to be pushing hard at our evidence-based design agenda: we want to get immersive visualizations of proposed buildings into the design loop in an entirely new way.  As I see it, the biggest challenge will be to define the limits of how well behaviour in virtual reality can predict behaviour in real world settings.

We have one project underway now where we’re measuring the behaviour of users of a real space (a student centre in Toronto) and then we’ll follow up with measurements of behaviour of users of a virtual rendering of the same building.  It’s ambitious, but I think if we can map out the similarities and differences between the two, and we can develop a nice, fine-grained portrait of what happens in both types of spaces using both traditional psychological tools and souped up physiological ones, we’ll have proof of principle for an incredibly powerful new approach to design.

I know. That sounds a bit like a grant application!


Colin Ellard is a professor in the psychology department at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. He has been conducting research and writing about the psychology of spatial perception for the last 25 years. Check out Colin’s blog here.

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