where there's a will. . .
Not many people can claim to have saved lives as a result of their work, but someone who can is one of the Netherlands' top sign designers, Paul Mijksenaar. He was in London this month to preach the value of good wayfinding to architects and clients.
This serious-looking Amsterdamer has stopped African travellers from falling out of planes and rescued innumerable Dutch pensioners from fatal poisoning in their own homes, all with the power of his sign designer's pen.
In 1984 aircraft manufacturer Fokker called on Mijksenaar after a series of incidents on its planes in Africa where a lack of training for cabin crew had led to cabin doors flying off in mid-flight. The Dutchman redesigned the graphic instructions on the door to solve the problem.
A year later, Mijksenaar was drafted in by the manufacturer of a lavatory cleaner to redesign a 'don't mix' label after two pensioners were killed by fumes, having created a fatal cocktail from two different types of cleaner in their own toilet bowls.
These bizarre-sounding industrial design heroics preceded his more recent work in the mysterious-sounding discipline of wayfinding, which involves anything from designing metro maps to drawing up systems of signage to lead travellers through airports.
Mijksenaar's work is characterised by a struggle to make daily life more understandable and predictable through better design. Architects might think they share this aim, but in fact his principle adversary is the architect, with Mijksenaar either patching up confusing buildings with a signage strategy or trying to persuade architects to consider at design stage the need of people to move through the building.
A recent exchange with an architect at the New York Port Authority, where Mijksenaar is now working to redesign signage across the cities airports, sums up the tension at the heart of his work.
'When we were at a meeting in New York, one of the architects wanted me to make sure the signs did not draw attention away from their building, ' he says. 'I had to tell him that my mission was to draw attention away from the buildings. If there are signs there then they should dominate.'
And this is certainly the case at Mijksenaar's biggest wayfinding job to date, at Schipol Airport, where new buildings by Benthem Crouwel fade quickly in the memory, while the vivid black on yellow signs and inventive pictograms linger on.
'The most common mistake that architects make is that they think their buildings speak for themselves, ' he says.
'Architects have visual jargon which they think everyone understands.'
Mijksenaar's aim is to undo this jargon with simple signage and the essential modesty of his job is that the better his work, the less he has to show for it.
'An architect wants to create something but when our work is successful you can find your way without any signs at all. There's not a catalogue which I can show as my work - it's invisible, ' he chuckles.
The ideal project, he says, would be for Studio Mijksenaar to help design an airport or a hospital from scratch. It has not happened yet, but in this dream project architects would listen to his basic advice - such as to place the entrance on the longest elevation and not to design buildings square in plan.
'I'm tired of coming to projects too late when the job is already done and the building is already there, ' he says. 'This is a negative approach. The answer is to prevent the problem in the first place.'
Other key projects in Mijksenaar's career include the signage at the Amsterdam Arena, home of football club Ajax; signs and maps for metro systems in Amsterdam and Rotterdam; and an attempt to redesign the long-established London Underground map. Mijksenaar and his research group at Delft University decided to render routes in the city centre topographically and those outside diagrammatically. Landmarks and major roads were included in the centre to help visitors 'plan their visit better and avoid bizarre detours' and the design was presented to London Transport, whose managers rejected it 'with a stiff upper lip'.
But whether large or small, Mijksenaar's work seems to stem from the simple fear of getting lost and an urge to beat Murphy's Law - 'if it can go wrong it will go wrong'.
'I don't like to travel with other people reading the map. I like to read it myself. It's the feeling that you lose control of your environment, the Murphy's Law kicks in, ' he confides. 'I always get lost, so I have a vested interest in this job.'
His colleague Elise de Jong chips in with an anecdote about a car journey together when Mijksenaar became so fractious that he even had to relinquish the driving to read the map. As she relives the moment, the hoodeyed Mijksenaar becomes sad at his inability to relinquish control. 'I miss out on the adventure of travelling because when I go on a trip I plan it all ahead in so much detail.'On the other hand, he reflects, maps and signs help him find things he would never have known about. A psychoanalyst might also argue that the root of his obsession was the moment when, as an eight year old, Mijksenaar got badly lost in a French wood while on holiday with his parents.
Mijksenaar plays down the analysis but everything about him tells the tale of this obsession, such as the intricate, office-locating map on the back of his business card, his incessant photography of interesting signs as we tour Southwark Underground Station and his latest book Open Here - a fascinating and amusing compilation of his collection of instructional design, featuring graphics on everything from medieval ways to have a fist fight to how to build a Lego toy.
The future is in personalised instructions through mobile phones using satellite positioning, predicts Mijksenaar. But for this particular wayfinder there remains something comforting about the welldesigned sign or familiar pictogram which guides us through an increasingly complicated world, made all often more complicated, he thinks, by architects.