Technology AS Wayfinding — Are We Ready?

I spent an hour last week deleting and reorganizing 140+ apps on my iPhone ­– most useless or unused – in order to make room for my son’s latest must-have game. It occurs to me that maintaining a library of this many apps is hardly worth the trouble. I will definitely think twice about downloading the next one.

Then this week, I read two articles back-to-back that mark an interesting intersection between technology and wayfinding systems:

County Backs off Wayfinding System, Leesburg Today
Mobile Apps Must Die, Design Taxi

Before I get into the details on each, let me first say that I’m a proponent of utilizing mobile apps and map software as a part of a wayfinding and destination strategy. There’s so much information we can pack into an application that is specific to a place – restaurants and ratings, accommodations and entertainment, interpretive history and local events, among a dozen other things. However, although most Americans HAVE smartphones, that doesn’t mean that they have the DESIRE to USE the native app concept at every place they visit. More and more, app fans (like me!), may hesitate to add more clutter to our pocket brains.

Let’s talk about the pros and cons of an app-only wayfinding approach as it relates to article #1, County Backs off Wayfinding System. City leadership in Loudoun County, Virginia has opted to forego a long-planned wayfinding system in lieu of an app. It will cost 1/10th of a sign program and, based on the article, avoids some of the complications anticipated in the installation of a physical wayfinding system. (Sidebar: I think this is a mistake). Perhaps the article didn’t give us the nitty gritty details, but all sign programs are complicated and difficult and expensive. That doesn’t mean they aren’t the right thing to do. Signage should be considered a utility in any city – an integral piece of the infrastructure. Even if you use a GPS, signage supports the directions, and instills confidence that you are on the right track to your destination. DOT signs can work, but they fall short of providing a comprehensive lay of the land to a visitor.

Further, a good sign program serves as a reflection of your brand. The design – look, feel, materials, color  – conveys a flavor of what your city represents. It sets the tone for what your visitors can expect from your Place. The functionality of the sign program does the same – the ease of use, system approach, and philosophy, even the consistency with pre-visit materials — indicates to travelers the importance of their visit to your city. A good program says, “Welcome. We care about your visit here. We want to make it easy for you, give you peace of mind and encouragement to enjoy your stay.” The absence of a sign program has the opposite impact, one that is quite negative. If you choose to exclusively cater to a population with smartphones, your message then becomes, “We only care if you can afford a smart device and have the savvy to use it, have done your homework to download our app in advance of your arrival, and are willing to endanger yourself and others by using it to navigate our city.” Ouch.

Let’s move on to Article 2, titled “Mobile Apps Must Die,” authored by Scott Jenson and originally published a year ago on Frog Design’s blog. This perspective provides a very persuasive argument about why apps are a fading fad. It also provides a glimpse into the future of a Discovery Service. Like the Amazon of our mobile lives, a technology interface will learn our preferences and habits and seek information in our vicinity to share with us. Coming ever closer to the eyescan advertisements of Minority Report, it seems very likely that this will be the preferred information source as users continually grow into the “me-centric” need for technology to cater to their preferences.

So, is paying $100,000 for a mobile app that will be used by few (and will likely become quickly obsolete) the best investment for Loudoun? Or is a million dollar infrastructure investment that, in relative terms, is only the fraction of a cost of a streetscape program or virtually any other infrastructure improvement — that will last the city 10 or 15 or more years — the wiser choice?

It may not be up to you or me to answer this, but up to the visitors of Loudoun and elsewhere.

Designer’s View on Lakewood Signs

It’s always nice to get a compliment about the work you’ve done, but it is particularly nice when that compliment comes from another designer — and in the form of a blog post to boot. Thank you to Kim Hall and the folks at TWIST for the props about the wayfinding program in Lakewood, Ohio! We really appreciate it!

Technology meets Nature: Google Maps’ Biomimetic Inspiration


Biomimicry is an innovation method that seeks sustainable solutions by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies. It is a process that designers can employ to leverage nature’s 3.8 billion years of knowledge to help us solve human problems. While relatively new as a deliberate methodology, the concept has been around for ages.

Maps are visual spatial relationship tool that have been around nearly as long as humans in various forms. You can’t be a wayfinder and not have a sweet spot for maps.

These two things are seemingly disparate — although I have deep interest in them both. But I super love this article about the thought process that went into designing Google Maps. Layers and layers of information are available about places — much more than has ever been available before. Google has created a very sophisticated atlas that uses the concept of simplicity to make their map views both more informative and more readable. And in one case (closer to the end of the article), they drew inspiration from nature to create their “view of the world.” An elegant solution.

So interesting to reflect on how far we’ve come… from using trees to make our maps to using trees to inspire them.

If you’d like to learn more about biomimicry, I encourage you to visit the websites linked throughout this blog post. And if you’re really feeling adventurous, join me and others at the Future of Design: Biomimicry Workshop in March, hosted by E4S and BiomimicryNEO. Details for both the 1-day and 3-day program here.

Time is Up for Parking Meters

The single space parking meters are soon to be a thing of the past. It kind of makes sense — they take up space, are often broken, and only take change… who has change? New technology lets you use credit cards and is powered by sunlight. Cool stuff. Here is a great article about the last of the meters in New York City. Want one of these relics? They’re going fast.

Designing and Specifying Sign Programs — An Industry Survey

Architectural Signage Survey Results by Identia Signs

Earlier this year, we conducted a survey of architectural sign companies as part of an ongoing effort to compile information about the workings of our industry. Our survey focused on the process by which architects design and specify sign programs. Before we share the results, I think it would be helpful to layout some background information.

Continue to original blog post by Identia Signs

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