Latest Wayfinding Research: Behavior

Posted in Behavioral Science, research, Wayfinding Concept, White Paper on February 14th, 2014 by Mark VanderKlipp – 1 Comment

blackandwhite,lost,people,retro-08b64f30ecc6ba57df6601f1639ac347_hThis is the first of three posts related to the article referenced below:

As a member of the Center for Health Design, we have access to research documents that cover a variety of topics related to wayfinding. In this post, we’re summarizing findings from the most current article*, which provides an overview of basic behavioral observations, backed by extensive research. Readers of this post can follow up with Mark VanderKlipp for more information on where these findings originated.

Much of this may seem like common sense. But then again, the entire practice of user-centered wayfinding relies on simple, common sense solutions:

  1. Without wayfinding aids or external cues to direction, people trying to walk straight over unfamiliar terrain (e.g. a densely wooded environment) “end up doing intermittent loop-de-loops.” If natural landmarks such as the sun or moon are visible, this does not occur.
  2. Whatever inherent navigational skills we possess deteriorate as we spend more time with electronic devices.
  3. Not all who wander are lost. In a study involving visitors to a koala preserve, 90% preferred landmarks and signposts for navigation, while 10% preferred to “amble to areas that looked interesting”. A mix of straightforward and more subtle aids to navigation (a water feature, for instance) cover both types.
  4. Our diet may affect our ability to navigate: mice eating high-fat diets have more trouble navigating through mazes than those eating normal foods.

Knowing how people think about moving through space can inform the development of wayfinding systems:

  1. People prefer to travel in straight lines when moving through a city, and they like to be able to see as far forward as possible down the path they’re following.
  2. We follow one of four basic strategies in complex buildings:
    – Central Point: orienting yourself relative to a point in the building, such as a main entrance.
    – Direction: moving horizontally towards the goal
    – Floor: moving to the appropriate floor before moving horizontally toward the goal (preferred in healthcare wayfinding).
    – Past knowledge: relying on past experience to navigate to the goal (in most U.S. grocery stores, the dairy section is placed toward the back of the store).
  3. People unfamiliar with a building rely most on Central Point strategy.

Gender and age play a role:

  1. Men and women use different information from the environment when navigating a space
    – Women use landmarks and relative directions
    – Men “steer” using cardinal directions and distances
  2. Children as young as three years of age navigate primarily using landmarks (no indication of when this changes for males).

Human conditions influence wayfinding as well:

  1. People who are depressed get lost more easily.
  2. Schizophrenics have difficulty learning how to navigate from one space to another.
  3. Intellectually disabled individuals, when learning a new route, tend not to select or remember landmarks.
  4. Autistic individuals have more difficulty in forming mental maps of a given space.
  5. Individuals with Down’s Syndrome can learn to navigate a space with repetition, however they are unable to integrate information from multiple routes to create shortcuts.
  6. Alzheimer’s patients will succeed in “naturally mapped” environments, not requiring memory to navigate. Traits of these environments include visible landmarks indicating destinations and/or turning points.
  7. Changes in colors/textures can provide assistance for people with dementia.
  8. Sight impaired people pay more attention to differences in textures (e.g. under foot) than they do to acoustic variations in a space.
  9. Scents can also be used to help the sight impaired navigate a space.

An excellent TedX presentation by Chris Downey articulates how sight impaired people navigate.


*No publication date or author is specified for the article, originally titled “Navigating to Wayfinding Solutions,” but the organization that publishes this is Research • Design Connections.

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Corbin Design, a national leader in wayfinding planning and signage design, announced Shelley Steele has been named President. Steele formerly served as vice president of marketing.

As president, Steele is primarily responsible for the vision and direction of Corbin Design as well as the internal leadership and management of the staff. In her new role, she will continue to oversee business development and marketing.

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Ochsner Medical Center, New Orleans LA

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The FHWA has issued a clarification on the ruling it issued on January 25, 2016 terminating the Interim Approval of Clearview as an alternate font to the MUTCD. With regard to community wayfinding signage systems, the use of alternate fonts is still possible.

To summarize:

  • Projects currently in fabrication do not need to comply.
  • To the extent possible, projects currently in design should switch to the
  1. Sam Li says:

    I appreciate what you said about people tending to travel in straight lines when they’re in cities. I think wayfinding is an interesting phenomenon, and it affects literally every person who moves. My wife has taken an interest in wayfinding systems, so I’ll be sure to share your helpful tips with her.

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