The role of directing people through public and private buildings is often taken from sign manufacturers' schedules. As the access needs and expectations of visitors become more advanced, so too must the techniques used to help and direct them. More time should be allotted to the psychology and practicalities of navigating in and around a space.
Tate Modern is an example of a successful public building whose visitor numbers far exceeded initial expectations. The 'signs issue', raised late in the development program, resulted in the installation of a wayfinding and sign strategy, and its success can be seen in a customer focus survey, where 95 per cent of visitors questioned said that they found it easy to navigate within the building. Outside is a different matter.
The main focal point from Blackfriars Bridge is the tall chimney stack indicating the north entrance.However, this way in is often ignored, as the cafe is more visible, and visibly dynamic. But not with quite the same impact as the nearby grand west entrance.
Tate Modern is aware of this problem and through second-stage works, is developing landscaping to 'slow the area down'. By introducing a terraced area with landscaped features, visitors will be deterred from winding through seated customers to get in, and will pick up 'west entrance' sign features, inviting them down the ramp.
Many problems were evident before opening and could have been avoided by altering the architecture. However, these are now being solved by working with the architecture, using different techniques.
Even though getting in through the correct entrance can be difficult, once inside, users are reasonably well directed to the galleries, told what is showing and where the amenities and the exits are. When you get into the warren of galleries, the information stops and you are left to wander - allowing people the freedom to move with the flow and to enjoy serendipitous encounters.
Generally, no one likes the feeling of being really lost, so there needs to be a careful balance between directions and free movement. In the case of an art gallery or shopping centre, being allowed to wander is part of the experience. In the case of a school, business centre, car park or hospital, the needs and the solutions are all different. The more a building is open to the general public, the more an effective wayfinding strategy is vital.
The success of a building's accessibility solutions can develop by effectively predicting flows, or by closely analysing the real use of an organisation. To minimise discomfort in use, predictive analysis is usually preferred.
Nick Hawksworth is a wayfinding designer. Tel 07718 900 827