Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Way-finding - which way forward?

This morning's Countdown 2009 executive board meeting was dominated by a presentation on way-finding connected with the work of the Focus Group which has the task of preparing a new integrated signage and mapping system to assist visitors to the city - initially to the centre and eventually to the Borough.

Recently I photographed the nice cast iron finger post which stood outside the church in St John's Street, sadly lying horizonal across the jaws of an earth moving machine, on its way to the scrap heap. The execrable scaffolding pole with a supplementary brown and white sign pointing the wrong direction to the water bus, erected by the Harbour Authority without consulting anyone responsible for signs in the city, which seemed as irremovable as it was ugly alongside the finger post, had already gone. (That little incident, with the left hand of the council not knowing what the right hand is doing, gave an entirely new meaning to the term 'fly-posting'.) What design information bearing street furniture is destined to replace those uprooted is still in process of determination.

I'm quite used to working with street maps and once I've got my orientation in a place, to making my way around without much further reference to a map unless I can't see any of my key navigational landmarks. By habit I still want to know roughly where the four points of the compass are, and I have trouble on overcast days when I can't see the sun to work out which was is north. I also spend a certain amount of time giving people directions, and from this have realised how hard it is for those who are unfamiliar and disoriented to manage instructions.

So, I was delighted to hear this presentation, and challenged to realise how conceptually difficult it is to try and design an integrated system of signs and maps from the bottom up. There are many conventions presupposed, and they are not all perceived in the same way by those with different information needs from what's on offer. Keeping things simple and legible is top priority, and getting people to the key places where they can shop, travel or be entertained is essential. The challenge is determining how much people need to know when they're in a given location, to enable them to know where they are and get where they want to go.

It was a clear presentation, and if I ended up feeling a bit bewildered it was because I hadn't realised how hard it is to make things intelligible for those who don't find urban orienteering as easy as I do. Out of date SATNAV instructions are still landing motorists in trouble, not only in Cardiff, but in all sorts of places - town and country. There's a limit to the value of instructions delivered in a linear fashion if you cannot also hold in mind an overview of where you are. It's too early to comment on the ideas being put forward, except to say that they are interesting and attractive, and will generate a lot more discussion before hitting the street in physical form. Good luck to the guys who'll ache their heads of this, I say. Pity that this little preparatory task hadn't been started a couple of years earlier.

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