The first thing that springs to mind when we talk about wayfinding is maps. If we need to find our way somewhere, we just follow the blue dot and Google Maps will guide us to where we want to go. If lost and our smartphone is out of action, nine times out of ten the person we ask for directions will turn to their own digital map for the route. However, as mobile technology becomes ever more sophisticated, how we understand and experience wayfinding is expanding beyond ‘simple’ topographical maps.
In this article I show how digital wayfinding tools that guide us from A to B, can also enhance our sense of place.
Drawing on practice, I’ll explore three themes: access; information and interaction. Together, they will ensure that we think beyond topographic maps and street totems when considering digital wayfinding for our town centres, campuses, visitor attractions etc.
Wayfinding is all about finding one’s way using the information at hand. By adding digital technologies to the mix we can enhance our wayfinding experiences, e.g.:
Personalised digital interfaces allow users to access information in preferred modes;
Voice control gives people with sight loss the ability to receive detailed voice guidance and new kinds of verbal instructions for walking trips;
Additional locative information enriches visitor encounters with places;
Dynamic themed trails provide routes to move around a place that most suit the visitor and let the destination reveal its colour;
Location positioning of others helps visitors situate themselves in relation to their peers.
This list is far from exhaustive but it starts to help us expand how we frame wayfinding in the digital era. Now, let’s look at some inspiring projects that improve a traveller’s wayfinding experience.
The World Health Organisation says that “environments – physical, social, and attitudinal – can either disable people with impairments, or foster their participation and inclusion.”
A wealth of digital wayfinding tools are being designed to support disabled people to navigate public spaces independently and with confidence. For example, funded by the Department for Transport, NavSta is a mobile wayfinding system that aims to remove barriers to travel. It supports neurodiverse passengers to plan their journey through a railway station, undertake their journey and manage uncertainty during a journey. Microsoft for Startups is helping companies design tools that can help people with disabilities safely navigate public spaces, and Navigueo+Hifi is an audio beacon service that provides messages that guide people with sight loss to their destination.
These digital tools support disabled people to become more active wayfinders and participants in the dynamic life of towns and cities.
Revealing the social, cultural or environmental life of a location as part of a digital wayfinding tool provides ways for people and places to connect.
Harnessing audio can provide compelling locative opportunities. Two projects that spring to mind are Poems in the Air at Northumberland National Park, which invites people to follow in the footsteps of Simon Armitage, using maps and directions, while listening to Armitage’s nature-inspired readings. Secondly, led by Professor Fabrizio Nevola, the award-winning Hidden Cities visitor apps combine navigation tools with situated stories about the histories of Valencia, Exeter, Hamburg and Trento. People are guided around the streets by fictional characters who narrate forgotten histories about specific locations, in multiple languages.
Layering compelling information about a location can bring a place to life and deepen people’s relationships with local areas as they travel around.
Worldwide, digital tools are being used to foster interaction between people and places. As well as receiving varied information about a location, people are using technologies to influence the design of places and share their insights about particular sites.
A great example of digital tools playing a part in community engagement is ‘What’s Growing on the Greenway?‘, that won the Landscape Institute’s President’s Award in 2019. The project invited the community of East Belfast to participate in the design and evolution of the Connswater Community Greenway.
Next, founded in India, Safetipin seeks to create safer streets for women. Drawing upon crowd-sourced data to highlight where people feel safe and unsafe, the Safetipin app helps women to choose routes that offer them greater safety in the city.
Fundamentally, as these two projects demonstrate, how we understand, influence and relate to places are being transformed by the ways in which digital technologies enable us to act in and upon our neighbourhoods.
Digital wayfinding offers massive opportunities to enhance our sense of place. As technologies develop, it’s vital that we use them creatively and thoughtfully to support the ways that all people can navigate, understand and influence the design of places.
Digital wayfinding can connect people to places as never before and should play an integral part of any place strategy.