Landmarks: Wayfinding “Sign Posts” are Helpful for Both Indoors and Outdoors
If you’ve ever seen the 1963 film “Lawrence of Arabia,” you probably have a pretty good idea – even if you’ve never set foot in that part of the world – of the empty, trackless and unforgiving expanse of the Middle Eastern desert.
And yet plenty of confirmed tales abound from ancient as well as modern travelers of desert nomads who manage to successfully navigate their way across hundreds of miles of this ocean of sand to their intended destination. Wayfinding savants? Not quite. As an article in the New Scientist in January 12, 1984, points out, “local landmarks are often used by humans […] to determine the correct direction of home.” The article goes on to say that even wizened desert dwellers rely on the most minute details of their landscape for wayfinding: “The moral of the tale is that when one’s life depends on it, the capacity to memorize minor details in the environment can become very highly developed.”
Fortunately for most of us urban dwellers, we have bigger, more prominent landmarks in our surroundings to rely on. I grew up here in the Dallas area and don’t rely on maps or even my GPS unit much to get from Point A to Point B. Instead, I use a combination of my internal mental compass, familiarity with the layout of this sprawling region, and the widespread availability of landmarks. I – and just about anyone in Dallas – know, for example, roughly how to get to downtown without having to consult a map. I can simply have to point my car in the direction of the iconic Reunion Tower in the distance. And even a non-football fan can spot suburban Arlington from miles away, simply by looking for the massive dome of Cowboys Stadium.
Our most sophisticated electronic wayfinding systems – GPS, Google Maps on smartphones – also rely heavily on landmarks to help us locate a place on a map. Most people who use Google Maps to navigate refer not only to the illustrated street network of the area in question but also to the landmarks that Google Maps helpfully throws in as reference points, from the neighborhood Starbucks to the nearby tourist attraction.
Even in smaller-scale environments – a university campus, a hospital building – landmarks serve as critical orientation points to visitors, residents and staff. University of Texas students and even local Austin residents use the famous clock tower in the center of campus for navigational purposes. People use interior landmarks such as distinctive water features, artwork, and unique architectural elements to orient their way around hospitals, convention centers, hotels, and even sports stadiums. (Download our Campus-Wayfinding Whitepaper)
Wayfinding designers point out that one of the principles of effective wayfinding includes the creation of unique “identities” for each location, and landmarks serve a critical role in that process. In fact, as one designer writes, “every place should function, to some extent, as a landmark – a recognizable point of reference in the larger space.”
A landmark can be anything that serves a singular, memorable feature in what may otherwise be an undistinguished hallway or corridor. Hospitals may use different colors to distinguish between departments. Museums may use actual displays to differentiate one gallery or exhibit from another. Malls may use water fountains or even art work (e.g., Dallas’ art-infused Northpark Center). In the great outdoors, parks managers may use trail markers that utilize unique symbols for each route, or on a grander scale they may even use natural elements in the landscape such as trees, bushes, or even interesting rock formations such as Delicate Arch in Utah’s Arches National Park.
Just about anything that can stand out in an environment – from a natural feature to a striking paint color – can serve as a useful landmark in an effective wayfinding system. What’s important is simply that they exist, and regardless of whether it’s located in a building, a neighborhood, or an entire city, a landmark plays an essential role in people’s orientation and navigation experience of that space.