First, read this article over on Desktop, essentially spelling out the drive towards digital wayfinding solutions as a factor in the rise of placemaking.
Cornelia Konrads – Passage (2007)
In her article, Atkinson notes that "our urban and retail environments are increasingly visually dense and complex – in these environments, zones with less signage can actually be easier to navigate." Again, this is true, but kind of misses the point. These environments are easier to navigate when they are designed to be navigated with little directional assistance; where destinations and decision points are made obvious and memorable. And, yes, leveraging existing emotional and intellectual ties to the landscape will make an environment more memorable, and perhaps more legible.
That wayfinding is moving towards digital solutions is correct; there is strong interest from both clients and designers for digital solutions to wayfinding problems. They are easier to update than traditional signage, and will eventually reach cost parity with traditional signs. This is really no different to any area of design; our culture is becoming digital, and while there remains significant affection for printed matter and related ephemera amongst designers, the zeitgeist continues to favour digital.
However, there are strong arguments for wayfinding to retain links to traditional signage methods and applications, at least for the time being. 16 years after it's effective commercial launch, internet access is still at ~75% of all Australian households, and while it will increase dramatically over the next few years, is unlikely to ever reach full access. That is for fixed line connections; mobile internet penetration is at 42.8%, and is likely to rapidly increase, although it too will never reach full adoption.
I am of the firm opinion that wayfinding systems should be essentially egalitarian; that everyone should have equal access to information, particularly about the environment surrounding them. That means being able to see, interpret, and act upon information. By taking a strongly utilitarian approach to the design of each piece of wayfinding support, we ensure that our wayfinding systems are usable and effective, and that as many users as possible are assisted. This means assessing how well technology assists with the delivery of information; in some cases, that means digital, but most will be well served by traditional hardware. It also means delivering information within the environment, rather than as a personal, private layer on top of it.
There is a risk in transferring the designer's skill-set onto the population at large, as the modern designer is essentially a digital native, well versed in digital interfaces and the paradigms they present. For many users, digital interfaces present a barrier between them and their effective navigation of the built environment. About a year ago I watched a woman try to use a simple check-in kiosk. It had three buttons she could push, regarding which type of assistance she needed. An everyday task, and yet she was unable to figure out what to do.
Digital Signage at the Walker Arts Center
Every time someone suggests replacing the wayfinding system with a digital system (most often kiosks, that most magical of digital devices) and some landmarks, I think back to this woman. Would she be able to function in the environment? Why is she unable to use this simple kiosk? How can we make sure the system helps her, rather than presenting her with obstacles to overcome?
"Correlation does not equal causation" is a common refrain amongst scientists and researchers, and applies equally well here. Landmarks are not being increasingly used because digital methods allows a reduction in signage hardware. They are used because they are an effective tool for enhancing cognitive mapping skills, regardless of the amount of signage surrounding. You could argue that environments with minimal signage are more pleasant to be in, and are therefore more likely to foster a user's cognitive mapping skills, but, again, digital is not the root cause of this.
Cornelia Konrads — Still Life With Tree (2008)
Environments which are structured to make the user's journey more apparent, which make destinations obvious and recognisable, and assist the user to orient themselves will are much more effective than simply adding landmarks, or relying on a minimalist approach to signage. This is an important point; landmarks are an assistive device, and not in and of themselves a navigational tool. Complex, information critical environments like hospitals and airports cannot function without effective, clear signage. While landmarks may function as a reminder of where you are, they won't tell you where you are, or what destination you need.
Creating naturally legible environments is a harder route, and often requires a strong commitment to making the environment work, foresight from architects and designers, and a willingness from all parties to put the user first. Ultimately, wayfinding systems are about supporting the user, none of whom are exactly alike. While some people may prefer to use personalised digital directions, there are others who will want face to face interaction. It is our job to create an environment where both options are viable and effective strategies for navigating the built environment.