Finding the right direction

Universities could benefit from introducing wayfinding into any development plans at a much earlier stage, says Chris Girling

In the fiercely competitive global economy of the 21st century, one of the key investments a country can make is in its higher education system. Whilst the picture for the UK in terms of that investment up for discussion and disagreement, one key fact is significant – in 2014, the OECD reported that by 2012 the UK had reached an important tipping point, with more people going on to tertiary education than ending their education at earlier levels. At the same time universities have worked hard at attracting overseas students – the latest figures show a total of more than 300,000 foreign students in the UK. They bring with them much needed fees and take away both a good education and generally an enthusiasm for the system here.

Whilst all this is good news, it does mean that long-term planning and investment is necessary – new facilities, bigger facilities, better facilities, more flexible facilities able to meet the changing needs of universities, their staff, students and commercial partners. What ties together all this investment is the wayfinding – how you get into, around and out of the facility, whether that is a single building, a whole campus or even multiple facilities in many locations spread across a city. For too long, many have considered that wayfinding is something to be looked at when a project is nearing completion, but that is changing and there is an emerging trend to include wayfinding strategy as part of the masterplanning process. Why should that be happening? In simple terms, wayfinding is like the electricity cables – yes, you can add them once a building is complete, but it is cheaper and leads to a more integrated result if you plan them at the outset and install them before the plaster goes on the walls.

As funding in the sector has become harder and harder to obtain, education authorities have become much more sophisticated in their approach to planning and have shown a greater appreciation of optimising investment for both short-term and long-term needs. Detailed masterplans are now developed to ensure that capital expenditure and infrastructure investment are maximised. Wayfinding has been recognised as a key part of any infrastructure project because there are significant benefits in terms of the effectiveness (and lower costs) of the end result. One example of an educational establishment that is looking forwards over two decades is the University of York, which is considering at how it will meet the needs of users over the next 20 years. It is looking at its own future needs as it plans to double in size, as well as how it integrates with the city’s own development plans. Many other universities across the UK are now taking the same approach.

But what is wayfinding and how does it fit into the masterplanning process? It’ll come as a surprise to many that it’s not just signs. Wayfinding is the process by which a strategy is evolved to look at how people will navigate through and interact with an environment. Signage is usually best considered as a design exercise towards the end of the process. The building or buildings are designed and we need to add some support in to help people find their way. The three key components of wayfinding are: orientation, direction giving and decision making. People need to make sense of a college’s space as they enter it and then be given the information they need as they pass through – whether that is individual buildings, a campus or facilities spread across a city. This is a particular challenge in spaces that have evolved over time or have complex layouts – as is the case of old and well-established educational sites.

An early, holistic view of wayfinding delivers better wayfinding as an integral part of the architecture, rather than an unsatisfactory add on, but there are also a number of other direct benefits to considering wayfinding strategy as part of the masterplanning process, including: an integrated solution with ground rules for all elements of the university; ‘right first time’ – retro-fitting is often a messy solution that ruins the architecture and provides poor wayfinding; cost saving – early consideration should result in fewer signs and this is key when budgets are becoming ever tighter.

Best practice dictates that, before any wayfinding strategy is developed, a review of the existing system is undertaken and that knowledge is then used to develop a new strategy that matches future plans. This audit-led approach can be enormously beneficial in ensuring that the new system will work. Better still, it requires, relatively speaking, a quite small investment and the output can reduce final costs significantly. The audit will identify the size and complexity of the scope of any new system, allowing the estate management to understand the key issues and opportunities they may have available. By better comprehending the need, it’s possible to plan ahead and tie wayfinding into the overall masterplan. In turn this can allow for more efficient time planning and cost savings.

High-level site audits of this nature can provide insights into better sign placement, core movement principles, existing pitch points and dwell areas, as well as specific accessibility issues. Educating the client in these areas can provide better clarity and a clearer understanding of their overall wayfinding requirements. The research helps designers, developers and architects to understand how students, staff and visitors use and navigate the campus, building or town. From this, a strategy can be developed that aims to make journeys more understandable and accessible and integrate wayfinding into the transport plans of users, including buses and car parking. It is then be possible to design and implement new signage to create a unified feel for the university or college and review how to integrate the wayfinding with digital mapping and information projects.

Even campus-based colleges do not exist in isolation from their surroundings, so wayfinding must be considered in conjunction with the urban planning process. Where the college or university is spread across a city – as is this case with, say, Edinburgh or London – then the need for integration with urban development is even more evident. York is certainly not alone in considering the university’s needs in tandem with the city’s new wayfinding scheme, as well as its public transport plans for parking and local buses. The plan is to put in place an integrated system which will maximise accessibility. The aim is to make any wayfinding system unobtrusive – interchanges will be intuitive, allowing people to flow freely through the site without needing to make difficult decisions.

By including wayfinding strategy as early as possible in the planning process, any educational establishment can stand out, providing users with information in such a way that they warm to the establishment and its values – if it appears to be inviting, friendly and easy to get around, then it will have achieved at least one objective in an increasingly difficult and competitive environment. 

Chris Girling is Head of Wayfinding at CCD Design and Ergonomics, and former Head of Wayfinding for the 2012 Olympics

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