Q&A: Finn Butler on wayfinding design

Investing in evidence based design is far from common –  retail business’ mantra that “the customer is always right” is not yet firmly entrenched in the design professions way of thinking – yet – but I am sure its coming – here is an interview with a firm that believes firmly in following the evidence to promote ease of way-finding in notoriously difficult to negotiate environments – from smart planet By 

MELBOURNE – At SmartPlanet, we’ve written about wayfinding from all different angles; as environmental graphic design, operating system, cognitive map and even as an iPhone app. But as a professional practice, it’s still relatively unknown and arguably undervalued.

Pioneering wayfinding as a new discipline is Finn Butler, a specialist with over 20 years of international experience in designing for complex built environments.

Since joining the Melbourne design studio Buro North in 2008, Butler has executed strategies for some of Australia’s most public projects including the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne, Melbourne Convention Exhibition Centre and Westfield in Sydney.

Butler’s early career focused on transport wayfinding systems for Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport, Delhi Metro in India, and the U.K.’s major rail stations.

We recently caught up with Finn Butler to discuss wayfinding semantics — what it is, why it’s important and where it’s headed as an industry.

Wayfinding expert Finn Butler

SmartPlanet: Where did the term ‘wayfinding’ come from?

Finn Butler: I think Kevin Lynch first used the phrase wayfinding in his book Image of the City to describe the process of designing and organising space to facilitate navigation, so in its modern sense the term has been around for about 50 years. As a design discipline, wayfinding is still in its infancy and is still evolving.

SP: Is there an agreed definition?

FB: Many practitioners describe wayfinding design in terms of the navigation of physical space with a strong focus on signage. I personally believe that wayfinding design is the design of navigational behaviour and not signage, which often combines the navigation of physical space as well as processes. This requires the consideration of a broad range of measures, including the development of operational processes, environmental changes and staff training as well as information delivery in the form of signage.

This approach differs from a purely graphic or signage response, as it requires an understanding of fields and ideas that usually exist outside the design field, such as semiotics, affordance and syntax modelling.

Quite often the best wayfinding strategists come from operational backgrounds or from the sciences rather than from a design background

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As brain pathways deteriorate, so does our memory

Memory loss with aging especially short term memory – the kind that makes us forget peoples names and that makes my 92 year old mom repeat her stories to us over and over, are common to us all as we get on in life, and research such as reported here from John Hopkins University is interesting, but I am concerned that the focus of research is on cures and mitigation with drugs, is there any work here or elsewhere that is investigating the role of use of the brain, memory exercises and even possibly dietary issues in reduction of brain pathway deterioration?

Image Spacesyntax.com

The role of memory in our experience of our interaction with the city and ability of older people to access the city and use it with confidence as well as how to design way-finding and legibility  within local urban areas and buildings is still a little explored area of research. As the average age of urban populations in urban environments increases it will become more essential for designers to build places that we can negotiate without fear in order to have the vibrant streets and safe cities of the future we desire , our initial understanding of way-finding and its importance in the urban context comes from Kevin Lynch ‘s  1960’s book  The image of the city”,  later research and similar work being done in urban environments is well documented in the article from UD E-World on Wayfinding,  which also lists the work of Bill Hillier, Julienne Hanson and colleagues at The BartlettUniversity College London and Space Syntax.com as well as IDeA Centre for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access : I would like to hear form anyone who can provide information or links to practical research in this field.

This article from smartplanet.com by Christina Hernandez shows the types of medical based research that is being carried out 
“Can’t remember where you parked the car? Blame it on your aging brain pathways.

Research out of Johns Hopkins University shows why our memory falters as we grow older
Pathways to the brain’s hippocampus degrade — by as much as 20 percent — as we age. I spoke recently with Michael Yassa, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences and lead author on the paper in PNAS, about the work — and how it could eventually help Alzheimer’s disease patients.

How did you conduct this research?

[These pathways are] how bits of the brain communicate with each other. If you have input coming in through your eyes or ears, it gets filtered through those pathways before it gets to the part of your brain that stores memories. Early on, we tried to look for evidence of this specific pathway that leads into the hippocampus because people haven’t been able to get an anatomical way to look at it [in humans]. It’s very small and tucked among other fibers going in different directions.

We tried to find a way to use technology called diffusion imaging. We were able to use a high spatial resolution to look at things in far more detail. Once we do that, we can see evidence of this pathway if we restrict our field of view to a specific direction. We know from anatomical studies in the rodent and some primates exactly where this should be. Using a bit of fancy math, we’re able to get a signature of that pathway. We were able to quantify this — basically use a measurement scheme to see what degree to which this pathway is intact in young individuals and older individuals. We found that, as you get older, there is a clear degradation in this pathway.”

Read the full article here:

Additional Resources: 

Integrating space syntax in wayfinding analysisAnna Maria Nenci, Renato Troffa, Lumsa University, Rome, University of Rome La Sapienza 

Architectural Wayfinding Design