ID/Lab’s Senior Wayfinding Strategist & Associate Chris Thorpe was recently interviewed by Affix Magazine, a publication inspired by a love for urban design & planning.
Chris spoke with one of Affix’ interviewers about what inspired him to do wayfinding design, the kind of research that is involved and why he feels so lucky to be in the wayfinding industry. Read the full article below.
We sat down with Chris Thorpe, associate and senior strategist at IDLab a Melbourne based wayfinding studio, to gain insight into his work and thoughts surrounding design and the ever-evolving relationship that it has on our urban fabric and the way people experience both public and private spaces.
Tell us a bit about yourself, your background, your interests and what you do.
I studied graphic design but I came to design really late, I didn’t even know it was a career I could pursue until I was 21 or so, 22. I started making gig posters and CD covers for friends’ bands in Canberra. People kept saying, “you could do graphic design and make money from that”, and I said - “what’s graphic design?”
I then got into it and did the whole uni thing. When I was doing Honours I started out looking at how we encode information into the symbols around us… so looking at how pictographics work, how do symbols and symbology work and how that all ties together. I quickly realised it was too much for an Honours project, so then started working with and looking into wayfinding and different wayfinding systems.
I’ve always been interested in psychology and people’s behaviour, but obviously have this design desire as well and it turns out there is this one, really niche career path that kind of marries the two together, and I just stumbled across it really by accident.
Once you kind of become known by people for being interested in it, people start throwing things your way and you get to talk to people that are also interested in it. That’s how I ended up at ID/Lab. A lecturer suggested that I go and talk to Michèl Verheem at ID/Lab and it started off as some casual work but then turned into a full time job.
ID/Lab has been running for about ten years now and it started out just doing wayfinding strategy and then gradually moved into the design space as well. It really became apparent that you can’t separate the strategy from the application, and so much of the work we do is in how to apply these strategies. There’s the standard wayfinding stuff, putting signs up and doing information encoding, which is a lot of what I do day-to-day but the other part of it is spent asking, how does it integrate with the environment? How do you express the function without having to do too many labels? It has been a gradual transition for us from pure strategy to much more of a focus on how people experience a space, how they move through it and understand it. We’ve got a few projects coming through now where we’ve got hardly any signs at all, so it’s a fair mixture now of interior architecture, industrial design, signage design and graphics all coming together as one.
What kinds of research are involved in your work and the creative process?
There are two or three types of research that we do.
There are strategists who base their work on user-behaviour research - so a lot of reading psychology papers and eye-tracking studies etc. These kinds of things help to figure out just how people naturally want to behave.
The next part is site research. So how many people are coming? Where are they coming from? What are they trying to do? That is also usually done by a strategist. We go on site for a number of days and just look, count and record our observations. That’s the other part - you really have to observe the behaviour, you can’t just walk up to somebody and ask them about their behavior. It is a subconscious thing, so much so that even when you go back to the client and say this is how they’re behaving, the client says no, we don’t think that they’re doing that, so having data validation there is really important.
Then the third part is actually conducting interviews about what people want to get out of the space. This primarily happens on the client’s site. Where are people moving? Where do they want to go? What experience do they want to have or deliver? On the user side, where are the ‘pain points’ that we are seeing?
So a cafe is actually a really good example and that’s because there’s a whole range of assumed behaviours that happen when you come into the space. But actually they’re all learned before you arrive. A cafe is a really well known space where you understand how to behave and you just come and sit down and someone will serve you a coffee. How do you then try to get to that level of familiarity with something as complex as a hospital or an airport? That starts with educating people before they even come onto the site, about what they’re going to get, what’s going to happen to them when they arrive.
That’s the balance with design with urban spaces at the moment it’s about creating an experience, it’s about extending those abilities and not just setting up a series of checkpoints and control points.
The way that I approach it is that it’s about supporting their natural decision making process. If you start to fight against that, you’ll have to put more and more interventions into the space.
The way that I approach it is that it's about supporting their natural decision making process. If you start to fight against that, you'll have to put more and more interventions into the space.
We actually start at the people level. We start with the person and then get the space to be structured in such a way that it is going to help them do what they want to do. We then start to put in those extra layers and steps in there. So the classic one that we did on a project in Malvern (in the Eastern suburbs of Melbourne) was with a reception desk, which was behind glass, tucked away in a corner. People would flow right past it and not see it. So what we did was move the reception desk to other side of the foyer, open it up and suddenly it became an attractive, welcoming environment. If you can avoid having signs there, it will fit much better with the user experience.
So your work with wayfinding is not just limited to signage per se but it helps with the whole experience?
A lot of the work that we put in with our clients is getting them to start thinking beyond just putting signs in. I think for wayfinding in Australia in particular, there’s a lack of knowledge from architects and urban planners about the role that it can play in a project. An example that we see so often is that architects have so much on their plate already that they start to lose sight of designing a space for people and how people live and interact with it. We bring that side of things into focus, absolutely.
We see signs as just another tool that we have in our kit, which we can deploy if we have to, but if we can do it without them, it’s much better; it’s cheaper for the client and better for all the people involved.
What about the physical nature of signs and the fact that in this day and age we are so attached to smart phones and becoming increasingly unaware of the environment around us. Considering we are so often distracted, predominantly by technology, do you see interactivity and technology playing a further role with wayfinding in the future?
I have a conflicting desire with it. So part of it yes, people are going to be bringing this technology into the space. How do you then provide a consistent experience across that technology? We do work with interactive kiosks, mobile phones apps and are developing our own software on that side as well.
The other part of it is, with some of the environments we work in, I think it’s dangerous to assume that people are going to bring that technology.
We do a fair amount of work in healthcare, where there are standards for healthcare design and we have to provide an equity of access to information for somebody who can’t afford a smart phone, doesn’t know how to use it or doesn’t want to use it. You have to provide alternatives.
For that reason, if you’re looking for something that you cant find, technology is not something you can just rely on, on it’s own. But I do think it is changing the way people interact with spaces. You can actually get away with a lot less information than you previously would. You don’t need a street number out the front for instance, people are going to follow Google maps and you don’t need to provide opening hours, because it’s cheaper and better to provide that digitally. The other advantage is associated with the amount of information you can give before people arrive.
I also think there is a level of expectation around the quality of experiences that people are going to have. It is not just enough to put in a nice garden, you need to look at it as if you are creating a showcase space. How do you extend that through digital technology and integration?
It has definitely changed what we have to contend with. If people completely miss a sign on a door, it’s changed how people behave now.
Back to healthcare and how this carries through to public spaces as well. Is your work very much about making spaces accessible for people with disabilities, or those with vision impairment for example?
There’s a couple of different ways that we approach that side of things. There’s the DDA (Disabilities Discrimination Act) standards that you have to comply with, so that will dictate clear pathways and involves working with DDA consultants.
There are requirements for brail that we work with. There is a question in particular with regards to brail and vision impairment, about how well those required interventions actually work. We often find that a classic example is at the Melbourne Convention Centre, where there is a large space, a big foyer with big signs and there is brail on the signs. However, if you’re so vision impaired that you need to use brail, the expectation that you are going to be able to navigate through the space and find one of these signs, interpret that sign and then find your way to you destination, I think is misplaced. I think there are better ways of delivering that information to these people.
Does this come back to gaining a deeper psychological understanding?
It’s not just enough to say yes we have complied. We have to try and think through how we can deliver information in more than just one way. This is particularly challenging for blind users navigating through public spaces because they are unfamiliar environments and there’s unfamiliar activities happening within them. There are a range of interventions that we’ve looked at such as using sound in the environment to convey a particular location, so again a cafe for example includes certain sounds that make it recognisable. How do we bring that into the public realm, in a considered way?
I think that in terms of mobility there is a lot of structural work that can be done around making the space easy to move through. A lot people, when they think of an accessibility issue around movement, they just think of people in a wheelchair and that’s not necessarily the case. We have an ageing population so there are a lot of people that struggle to walk long distances. There are people like me at the moment with a bung knee (chuckles), so I don’t want to walk too far.
There’s a whole range of those and just planning your space so that it’s easier for everybody to move through, actually lifts the space for everyone. Rather than focusing on ‘I need to change the space to deal with this edge case’.
I would imagine there is a certain amount of inspiration and influences for your line of work, perhaps internationally?
There are a few firms in Australia that specialise in wayfinding. It really is a niche market although it is growing, which is fantastic. Internationally it is a lot more recognised, particularly in Europe - a phrase that is banged around a lot ‘particularly in Europe’, but we are actually starting to get more work in Europe.
Andreas Uebele is an Austrian strategist and designer who does really interesting, forward-thinking wayfinding work. There’s also a number of people in the US like Corbin Partners, who do some really great wayfinding work too. What we’re saying now is that internationally, there’s an experience side to a space. We need to be designing for an experience. We’re starting to see people like United Visual Artists, who are really pushing the boundaries with blending digital technologies and space together as an interactive environment. Rather than just having a digital component and a spacial component, it’s about mixing them together. I really am a huge fan of their work. It is phenomenal!
Otherwise, I think we’ve worked with a number of architectural firms locally who do a lot of work with public spaces, which are well planned and visually stunning; it’s really exciting to see.
We like to work really early with architects and planners. We’ve got one project at the moment which is about to open in collaboration with Grimshaw Architects down at Southern Cross Station (Melbourne’s biggest railway station). It is a linkage between Bourke Street Bridge and Southern Cross station. We worked really closely with Grimshaw and the builder, Mirvac, to develop a space that encouraged more than just enabling people to navigate their way around. We actually ended up doing a set of bespoke furniture design, which created a link from one end of this really long urban corridor and it then draws you up from Bourke Street or Collins Street. In the end you get a view out over the iconic Southern Cross roof, into the city. We’ve made that space somewhere that you want to dwell and spend time in. That was quite a lot of coordination and back and forth with Grimshaw, who were really quite receptive to what we had to say, which is nice. Being invited in early we can say, well here’s what we do and how we go about these kinds of principles. You can have really strong collaborative relationships and I think that’s the way that urban spaces are moving. It’s not about one firm that does every little bit in the environment, you have to work with a DDA consultant, a landscape architect, a planner, an interior designer and, luckily for us, a wayfinding consultant, which results in a unified experience. For us, we touch on every little part of that, so it can be a juggling process, back and forth between everybody, and that has its advantages and disadvantages.
We’re doing some work in Bahrain at the moment, which involves developing and starting from scratch. It’s about delivering an experience. So what kind experience do people want to have in that space?
I can imagine that work involves a substantial amount of travel?
I do a fair bit of travel. I’m a bit ashamed I have a platinum frequent flyer membership! And so does the other strategist and Michèl the principal.
I guess it’s one of those things where you really have to be in the space itself to experience and understand it?
Yeah I don’t think there is any other way to do it well. I mean the tools have gotten really, really good, with Revit and Navisworks, and now being able to move through and examine a space before it’s even constructed is a phenomenal advantage. Yet there are all these subtle tools that you kind of miss, like what is the lighting like? What are the people like and what do they want to do? You can’t substitute actually physically being there, which is a bit of a challenge.
One example is Box Hill Hospital, where linework ran across the floor perpendicular to the line of travel and it really freaked people out to the point they would get vertigo and strobing. Another example involved Bank of NZ people cueing up behind each other and all we did was put in a little square in a slightly different colour and suddenly people just stopped.
Can you describe some of the challenges associated with the design process and your work in general?
Things get missed. I think one challenge is that we often get invited late onto projects. A lot of the stuff we would like to do to change a space can’t be done because we’ve got planning here and services there. That coordination side of things can be really challenging, but that’s why we like to be involved very early in the project. I do think there are big challenges around how you create legibility and understanding in a large environment. It’s a bit easier in the public realm. We use what we call a landmarking strategy to design the space in such a way that it is scaled for people and that people understand where they are and not just interpret it, but be able to communicate that to others.
When speaking of planning in Melbourne we have to talk about Docklands, sadly. One really good example of a landmarking strategy is ‘the cow stuck in the tree’ sculpture. It’s a really good example because you know what I’m talking about when I say ‘there’s a cow stuck in a tree’, and it actually works as a really good landmark. But there are others down there, where it’s like ‘a weird, yellow bundle of sticks kind of thing’ - you can’t really communicate it. So there are challenges there in the public environment, about not just understanding where you are but understanding where your next decision is and being able to discuss or communicate that through written language.
There’s four or five levels of information with encoding and to address all of these can be quite challenging because you have to take into consideration where people are coming from, their background knowledge of the space, where they’re trying to go and the mood they have within that. It’s probably not such a good idea if you’re working within a hospital or a healthcare setting to use a lot of red; it just doesn’t work and that’s why you get those more traditional, softer pallets and lighter colours. But also how do you then create these environments where it is relatively easy to build a system on construct-ability and the cost engineering side of things, but also creating spaces that are strongly differentiated from one another, so you know and understand the relationship.
Establishing a spatial identity also comes into it as seen in theming work. If we take the work of Jan Geh for example, as illustrated by the city square. This is a great example of some of his work about building a space that functions better because it’s slightly smaller. That landmarking strategy I think is something that’s missed in a lot of large-scale urban planning strategies when you’re looking at building the actual structure of that environment. Where are we going to put roads? Where are our signs going to go? It’s not just about where people are moving to, but how they interpret the environment.
The other big challenge that we really have is in terminology. How do you work with language in such a way that people who don’t speak english as well or people that have a cognitive learning disability can still use it and function in the space in the same way that somebody else can. I spent this week going through every single room name for a facility and checking if in fact yes, this is going to be interpreted, and questioning, are we communicating the way we want people to understand? That’s a real challenge and I think it’s something that does get missed.
We have a finger in almost every pie. It can almost feel like we’re a little bit generalist at times.
It’s interesting, it’s such a niche but at the same time you do work with so many different aspects of the industry…
… And I think we’re really privileged to do that. I think it’s a really exciting discipline to work in for that reason, because there’s not really a point in a project that we can say we don’t have something valuable to contribute there. There are always little tweaks that can be made and we do bring, I think, a really unique perspective, because we are so focused on how people move and how they behave. That is our absolute focus and everything we do is in service of that and that’s what makes it a unique discipline. More so that we don’t have to worry exactly about how you’re going to build your public square, we just know that this is how somebody is going to move through it… and now it’s your problem to go and fix it! (chuckles)
So how big is the team at ID/Lab now?
We are really busy, with a team of twelve full timers now, which is pretty big for a Melbourne design firm. Our office space is full, completely full, and when I started there there were three, including me. So it’s grown rapidly and that brings challenges of its own, but it’s really exciting to see that people we bring on as juniors have grown into their role and are now running their own projects and I do get really excited by just training people and teaching them how to design. It’s a real privilege to be able to do that.
Having a real impact on cities and how they’re experienced at the same time, that must be rewarding?
Yeah, I think it’s a hidden impact. We often find that the Melbourne design community is so insular in a way that it can just feel like you are meeting designers and architects and creative people all the time. But actually we are a really small part of the landscape, and meeting people from outside that and explaining the level of impact it has on the fabric of the city and the way in which that fabric then influences their lives and their health and their job opportunities, it can feel like a big responsibility at times.
I do think it’s getting better, we’ve just had Melbourne Design Week where we ran an event which had a big turn out, not even just from the design community but from members of the general public. I think it’s the way that Victoria has to move because we don’t have a huge manufacturing sector, there’s not massive finance jobs and that kind of thing, so what can be brought from Victoria? What does it have? I do think it has a phenomenally creative culture.
I was just down in Tasmania for the Dark Mofo festival (if you don’t like the cold then I don’t recommend winter down there) and Sydney has just had its arts and design festival ‘Vivid’. I think that those kinds of events, while they can seem a bit wishy washy, really do add to the life of the city. Those kinds of temporary, here for a month, experiential, installation work that goes on brings a different feel to the fabric of the city and it changes the way that people look at it. So I am encouraged and hopeful that it will only get better.
Then the idea of the ‘temporality of space’ is a useful tool to see how people naturally use the space?
I think the idea that people have is that the space is fixed, and they are often shocked when there is a change to it.
There’s this idea that I think our public realm is becoming increasingly blurred between our public and private spaces. The idea that it’s invariable, I think is something that we are going to have to discard. Spaces are changeable living things and the way in which we engage with them, not just on a day-to-day basis it’s that longer-term future as well. The way that we need to be looking, particularly as designers and planners is five to ten years in advance. Where is technology going to be? Where are people going to be? Is there going to be a change in the way in which people want to move through our spaces and what do they want to get out of them? I think (and perhaps it is a very Melbourne-centric view), but Australians are increasingly unlikely to just accept a space as it is. They want to get something out of it. They want it to be engaging and attractive and comforting and gain some level of familiarity with it and at the same time, we know that those spaces can’t always be the same.
There is a really good example just here on Collins Street - that ‘water wall’. Now the original sculpture is actually just the cascading water, but to see the way people engage with it, particularly in Autumn, I find fascinating. There are all these leaves around and they end up putting messages up and they pin the leaves to the wall. The artist in no way intended for that to happen and yet it has grown organically over the years. I saw a dragon painted out of leaves there the other day! It’s that kind of experience, it’s a seasonal thing, it’s only there for a couple of months and then it goes. Somehow it gets spread through the community and it becomes a thing that lives on its own.
How do you design to extend behaviour rather than to control it?
So you almost encourage people to make these public spaces their own?
I saw the work of a British firm the other day, where there were twenty-four (I think it was) communal swings all in a line that created music as people engaged with them. They started making music out of these swings and that is a phenomenal use of space. It was only temporary, but it has delivered this experience that people are going to remember and it has changed the way that people are going to think of this public square in the future. It’s not just this space that people have to commute through. It is this living breathing organism. It is the sum of more than just the paving or the lighting. It is about the people.
In the future do you see these people-centric spaces continuing to be the way in which the role of wayfinding in the city evolves?
I think it’s critical. Technology is becoming more and more integrated into what we do. You see the rise of the smart city. There is a lot of work going on, again, particularly in Europe. Helsinki had a design session where they put together this idea that people could interact with data in the city and work to change it as individuals and build this collective movement towards a cleaner, greener more engaging city through technology, which is interesting. But I also think that we know the world’s population is shifting to be more urban and that means that it’s really important that we start to think about how people are going to engage with the fabric and how we are going to plan our cities and environments in such a way that they are not just attractive, but functional and comfortable, promoting the best of people in these spaces.
I’ve spoken a little bit about control and yes there are going to be some elements of control, but there are ways to do it whereby you are doing it in either a positive way or a negative way. You may have seen those anti-homeless studs (and there’s a few of them in Australia sadly), but in London particularly, they’ve done little steel studs on the ground just to stop people from lying round and that’s a very negative way of designing. I think there are positive ways of designing. We’ve seen some things where there is specular design around a park bench that actually converts into a shelter. That kind of thinking - how you provide a space that is actually going to assist people, rather than restrict them. And that’s always going to be critical, regardless of whether there is a strong technology focus or not. So I do see that the future is one in which there is a role of design in extending what people can do with the urban fabric and if we don’t design in that way, then we’re going to end up with cold, bleak spaces that nobody wants to be in. That will be sad not just for designers, but for everybody that has to use the city.
I think I’m very lucky first to be able to have found something I’m really passionate about. There are people that go their entire lives without discovering what that passion is. So that is the first lucky thing.
The second lucky thing is to be able to make a living and a career out of it and that does fill me with a bit of weight of responsibility. You need to do really good work, design and be a professional in a way that is going to bring the best of what your discipline can do to the table.
So part of it is love, but most of it is luck. I think for me at least, the people I have discovered who do some amazing work in these kinds of fields, they either always knew that that’s what they wanted from life when they were four years old, or they fell into it later in life. The common thread is that it’s an all-consuming passion.
I don’t stop talking or thinking design when five o’clock rolls around.
We do work with a really great access consultant called Nick Morris, who had a motorbike accident when he was in his twenties and he went to the Paralympics. From there he became really passionate about how spaces can work for people with access and mobility issues. Now he has not just a personal understanding of these issues that surround wayfinding, but has a real passion for it.
If I was going to go back to fifteen year old me, I’d say just be passionate about something.
I guess that passion must be somewhat driven by the fact that what you do has a really big impact on the way people experience a space?
Yeah, and I think another challenge with this kind of work is the length of the project as well. How do you maintain that passion across four or five years? I have a project that has been going for five years now and it won’t finish until February, so I’ve got another six months to go on that.
And the influences on that space no doubt would have changed over that time?
For sure and you have to keep going back to the decisions you made five or six years ago and think were these the right decisions? That can be a real challenge. So what I mentioned before, you have to be designing five or so years in advance. It’s really what you have to be doing, because that makes your decision making process something you have to really think through. The hardest part is maintaining that creative fire across the length of these really long projects and yes it would be nice to do three month projects that you can deliver in and out, but the work that I’m proudest of are the ones where it has been a long project. So we’ve got a few that are just starting to come through now and I remember doing design documentation for those three years ago. It is just the nature of the work.
I think the nature of design in Australia is such that unless you are specifically an architect, you really can be multidisciplinary. There’s not a lot of accreditation required and even then getting that accreditation can be done throughout your work. I think there’s definitely a way for people to move from one discipline to another throughout their profession and in urban design and planning, I think it’s almost required that you have a passing knowledge of what every other discipline is doing and how they work and how it all integrates together.