Posted: June 15, 2015

Navigating your way through all the signs and directions at an airport can arguably be the most daunting aspect to any traveler’s trip. Gazing at the intricate map illustrations that feature dozens of signs and diagrams outlining the stores, restaurants and departments of an airport is often an overwhelming experience. Knowing the ins and outs of wayfinding through an airport is the secret to effectively gaining the most satisfaction during your time spent here. For those unfamiliar with the art of proper wayfinding, take a look at these tips for successfully piloting you and your travel group’s route during your next airport visit:

airport guide to wayfinding

What is Wayfinding?

Much of what steers you to a particular store or restaurant depends on what signs and markers you encounter along your way. These subtle directional guides can seem like mere advertisements or decorative accessories, but they’re actually intended to subtly escort you on a specific path to various departments or food courts that catered to heavy trafficked areas. Researchers from the University of Michigan identify common factors of wayfinding as being traced to features such as architectural clues, sight lines, lighting and a variety of signs and diagrams.

There are certainly elements of wayfinding that are direct and intentional on helping airport guests navigate through the complex, particularly through overhead notifications or map guides located throughout the facilities. However, there are also various architectural and decorative features that play into effective wayfinding as well. Long strips of illuminating lights hanging from the terminal ceiling are not just there for looks; often they’re indirect accessories aimed to lead you to frequented areas of the airport. Keeping an eye out for these distinct clues and gestures is what can help travelers better utilize their precious time at airports.

Why Wayfinding is Important?

To put it simply, effective wayfinding systems are what create the ultimate experience in customer satisfaction at an airport. With so much connectivity occurring between various terminals, concourses, departments, entrances and exits, airports need to make directions as accessible as possible through a combination of noticeable and subdued signs and indicators. Tom Esch, a wayfinding manager for the Mineta San Jose International Airport, explained to The Society for Experiential Graphic Design about balancing all different elements that played into efficient wayfinding planning at his airport.

“The obvious became clear: design the airport to ensure a positive customer/passenger experience,” Esch told the SEGD about his plan to improve wayfinding at the Mineta San Jose International Airport. “And that includes a good wayfinding experience — not just due to signage placement, or colors, or font legibility — but how the architecture, signs, and the whole environment work to make that experience as good as possible.”

Ineffective wayfinding is what causes travelers to have to settle for less than their expectations during a visit to the airport. For instance, health-oriented visitors might be discontent at the majority of fast-food options in a specific terminal, while failure to emphasize the selection of healthier dining establishments on the airport’s part caused this scenario. This is not to say that everything falls on the airport’s hands to properly lead you to the places you want to be. Knowing what clues and gestures to keep an eye out for is also essential for effective wayfinding.

What to Look Out For

Besides reading the various maps and signs that are spread throughout the airport, there are four distinct architectural traits that can help properly navigate visitors where they need to go to. The first is ceiling layouts, which can mean anything from long neon light strips overhead to fancy artwork hanging from the roof. While these trendy accessories certainly create a more appealing look to the airport, more often than that these decorations are signaling that you’re heading towards a heavily-trafficked area.

The sightline of a sign is another common component to wayfinding. Billboards and posters of airport stores and restaurants that are displayed at eye-level are intended on easily drawing your attention. It’s also a typical practice to hang signs at lower, children’s eye-levels, to trigger enthusiastic responses for everything from fast food meals to toy stores. Note that just because a sign is in plain sight doesn’t mean it’s offering you the best solution for whatever it is you’re looking for.

Two other distinct architectural traits that play into wayfinding are angled fixtures and tile designs. Features such as half walls or changes in ceiling elevation can indicate that you’re about to enter a populated terminal or facility of the airport, whereas different colors or patterns along the floor are arranged to guide passengers in a specific direction. The biggest thing to take away from effective wayfinding is that most decorative and architectural traits have a particular purpose in terms of steering people where to go. This is why understanding these intentions, as well as identifying and interpreting maps and signs, is what will help you make the most of your airport experience.


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