Could GPS create a world without signs?

How they tell us where to go.
March 11 2010 7:36 PM

A World Without Signs

Does the advent of GPS mean we'll no longer need them?

In the summer of 2008, a satellite navigation specialist named Colin Beatty fired up a 27-slide Power Point presentation titled "Could personal navigation systems herald the demise of much fixed signage?" Perhaps out of deference to his audience—Beatty was presenting to the Sign Design Society, Britain's leading association for environmental graphic design—the tone was somewhat measured. (Note Beatty's use of could and much.) But Beatty, who founded his satnav consultancy CBil 23 years ago, had bad news for the sign world: He believes the advent of geolocational technology will eventually kill the sign.

Julia Turner Julia Turner

Julia Turner is the editor in chief of Slate and a regular on Slate's Culture Gabfest podcast.

Sign designers tend to sniff at predictions of their obsolescence. Satellite navigation technology has been around in one form or another since the 1960s, though consumer applications have gained ground only in the last decade. We can now find personal navigation systems in our cars and in our cellular phones. And the rise of the Internet has also given us access to Web mapping services like Google Maps. But anyone who's ever used an in-car GPS device or a MapQuest printout knows that you still need signs to get you where you're going. When your TomTom tells you to get off the highway at Exit 13, you look for the sign that says Exit 13. Signs reassure us that we're going the right way. They give us real-world confirmation that our new digital advisers are giving us good counsel.

But these new tools are inexorably changing the way we navigate. It's true that we use signs in tandem with personal navigation systems today, but that may not always be the case. Beatty envisions a future in which we trust digital directions so completely that we no longer make much use of real-world cues.

This theory would have sounded crazy—well, crazier—five or 10 years ago, when these technologies were first coming into their own. Early personal navigation systems were kludgy and sometimes doled out bad advice, telling drivers to go the wrong way down one-way streets or to take old, overgrown, and impassable logging roads through the wilds of New Hampshire. But maps have been getting more accurate. The global titans in the digital mapping field are Tele Atlas and NAVTEQ, two companies that provide detailed geographic data to the manufacturers of automobiles and onboard navigation systems, and to Web mapping services like Bing and MapQuest. Google has relied on data from both providers over the years and still uses Tele Atlas data in dozens of countries, but it now compiles its own map data in the United States and a number of other markets.

Map providers typically rely on both in-house experts and average users to keep their information up-to-date. NAVTEQ, for example, sends its staff geographers around the world in tricked-out vehicles that capture geographic data with cameras and other sensors. But it also uses a tool called Map Reporter, which allows users to correct any misinformation on its maps. Google offers a similar tool called "Report a Problem"—you can see it at the lower right of the screen when you're looking at a Google map. Google's Carter Maslin, a director of product management who focuses on local search, says its users make 10,000 updates an hour to its master map, using "Report a Problem" and some related tools. Maslin himself used the tool to help a friend of his father's register a one-way street that was designated improperly and made it difficult for people to find his house.

Lately, the big mappers have been getting increasingly ambitious. They don't just want to build accurate maps of every drivable road in the world. They want to build accurate maps of literally everything: the road, its elevation and curves, the facades of buildings next to it, the entrances to local points of interest, the angles of intersections. NAVTEQ even logs each sign on major highways, allowing some of its clients to offer a service called "sign as real": As you approach a real-world sign, your personal navigation device can show you a digital version of it, with the information you need highlighted and the guidance you don't need grayed out. The ultimate goal, says NAVTEQ's Sara Rossio, a director of global project management, is to create "a digital 3-D representation of the world."

Although digital maps and the personal navigation devices that they power have yet to reach their full potential, they're already changing the way we get around. The first thing wayfinding designers have noticed is that personal navigation tools limit our ability to learn routes. The cell phone, with its handy digital directory, has eliminated the need for people to remember telephone numbers. GPS seems to have a similar effect on our navigational skills: It obviates our need to memorize routes and may even diminish our capacity to do so. Since the early 1980s, cognitive researchers have argued that it is the process of deciding which route to take that helps us develop our mental map of a place and remember how to navigate it the next time we pass through. People who use GPS systems tend to retain less information about the world they encounter. Greg Giordano, who designs wayfinding systems for PageSoutherlandPage in Austin, Texas, notes that the technology gets us where we need to go without teaching us anything: It's not very good at "making us smarter about places."

As a result, personal navigation tools foster our dependence on them. (Rather than teaching us to fish, as the old parable would have it, they just give us the fish, again and again.) Which means that once we start using them, we're unlikely to stop.

The advent of personal navigation technology has also changed the scope of the wayfinding designer's job. Guiding visitors around a hospital, mall, or convention center used to start at the front door. Design firms would clearly mark building entrances and post prominent orientation tools immediately inside the lobby. Wayfinding guidance would proceed from there. Getting to the front door was left up to the visitor, who might rely on a listing in the yellow pages or directions from a receptionist reached by phone. Today, though, design firms have found that visitors often plan their routes online. As a result, when wayfinding planners think about where to put information, they now have a lot more options than signs. Sometimes text on a Web site is more useful than text printed on a wall.

For instance, it's useful to make sure your client's Web site doesn't send people to a P.O. Box two towns over. Mark VanderKlipp, the president of Corbin Design, a wayfinding firm in Traverse City, Mich., remembers one client—a hospital in Westchester County, New York—that used a mailing address half a mile down the road from the hospital's main entrance. Patients and visitors would punch that address—listed prominently on the hospital's Web site—into their onboard navigation systems and end up on a grim stretch of road with no hospital in sight. When VanderKlipp's company took the job, he recalls, staff members were spending "a lot of time arguing with people on their cell phones and telling them, You can't use your GPS to find the hospital." VanderKlipp's team pointed out that changing the hospital's listed address might be easier than changing the way people get around. So they contacted the post office, which agreed to assign a new street address to the hospital's main entrance, and then posted the new listing on the site. (One funny side effect of the satnav revolution: It's made the post office newly relevant. Although it's possible to navigate using just latitudes and longitudes, most American users prefer to type in a post office-issued street address.) VanderKlipp's team also made sure to submit the new information to the biggest digital mapping companies so that the hospital became easier to find.

Wayfinding designers have just begun to tap into the new tools at their disposal, and so far, they've been dealing primarily with digital concerns like the one VanderKlipp faced above. But eventually, these new navigational tools will change the way we design and use physical signs in the real world, too. What will these changes look like? A more moderate theory was laid out for me by Craig Berger, the director of education for the Society for Environmental Graphic Design. He notes that wayfinding signs typically serve one of two key functions: They identify where you are (a street, a district, a hospital complex), or they direct you where to go (turn left for Poughkeepsie, right for New Paltz). He speculates that as drivers and pedestrians have increasing access to personal navigation systems, designers will spend more time on the first kind of signage and less on the second. "You wouldn't need 20 signs to get to the Franklin Institute," Berger says. "But you would need signs to direct you to the right parking lot, and then you'd also need signs to give you an understanding of where it existed in the city, as part of what district." In other words, signs will do some of the contextual orienting work—teaching us how a region fits together, and not just our own route—that personal navigation tools aren't so good at.

The more extreme theory, the one that Beatty espouses, holds that eventually we won't need signs at all. Once the map databases are good enough, he told me, we'll come to trust our digital navigators as much as we now trust our own eyes. We won't need that sign confirming that we have, in fact, arrived at Exit 13 or the entrance to the Franklin Institute; our GPS's assurance will be good enough for us. This sounds extreme, but automobile companies and map developers are already collaborating to give our cars an extremely precise sense of where we are. Sara Rossio of NAVTEQ told me that one automotive client uses Navteq's database to track curves in the road, so its cars are able to turn their headlights in anticipation of impending hairpin turns.

Presented with this scenario, sign designers tend to say, I'll believe it when I see it. They also point out that personal navigation tools, though increasingly widespread, are far from universal. (In 2009, one analyst estimated that 150 million systems were in use worldwide.) But Beatty notes that maintaining an extensive network of road signs is expensive. Twenty years from now, when a state can see that most of its population relies on satellite navigation, will it want to spent as much money maintaining signs that serve the minority of users—likely poor and elderly ones—who don't? Beatty acknowledges that in this future, we may need some basic emergency signs as a fail-safe. But that's about it.

The last refuge of the sign designer has for a long time been interior signage. Although global positioning technology can get us to the front door of wherever we're going, navigating interior spaces—like a shopping mall, a hospital, or the labyrinth at Penn Station—seems at the moment like a task best aided by signs. Even that, however, may not always be the case. Google and NAVTEQ are both working to develop interior mapping initiatives: tools that would allow users to obtain walking directions for destinations inside big structures. These might use RFID technology, currently used to track products in retail outlets like Wal-Mart, to help geolocate visitors, or they might rely on wifi or souped-up versions of the GPS technology available today. Either way, what it means is that sign design—a profession seemingly enjoying its golden age—is on the verge of having to reinvent itself.

For the most part, though, designers welcome the challenge. Greg Giordano sounded typically intrigued by the possibilities: "There's an opportunity for signs on walls to become intelligent, to recognize people as they approach, and to give them directions based on where they've indicated they want to go." Once we can link together smart signs with satellite navigation and a locator device like a phone, we may eventually live in a world where "the building knows where you want to go, and it helps you get there. That's the ultimate end goal for the interior." And an entirely new direction for signs.

More from this series: Why signs are better now than they've ever been; why the signs in  Penn Station are so confusing; how smarter signs could make  London easier to navigate; the international war over  the exit sign. Plus: Send Slate your  hand-drawn maps. See more road signs in this Magnum Photos  gallery.

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