These Subtle Airport Design Cues Keep You From Getting Lost

The Eye
Slate’s design blog.
Aug. 6 2014 11:19 AM

These Subtle Airport Design Cues Keep You From Getting Lost

140806_EYE_Ohare
Airport traveler at the Chicago O'Hare Airport concourse.

Courtesy of Nick Harris/Flickr

Roman Mars’ podcast 99% Invisible covers design questions large and small, from his fascination with rebar to the history of slot machines to the great Los Angeles Red Car conspiracy. Here at the Eye, we cross-post new episodes and host excerpts from the 99% Invisible blog, which offers complementary visuals for each episode.

This week's edition—about wayfinding—can be played below. Or keep reading to learn more.

As humans have developed cities and built environments, we have also needed to create ways to navigate them. Signage goes back at least as far as the Roman Empire, where they constructed “milestones” along their roadways.

140806_EYE_Wayfinding1
A Roman milestone in modern-day Portugal.

Courtesy of Júlio Reis/Wikimedia Commons

Advertisement

Today, signage and other cues to help you find your way come from the field of environmental graphic design known as wayfinding. Chances are that any signs in an airport, in a hospital, or on a freeway were created by professional wayfinders.

But there’s more to wayfinding than signage. In fact, signage is the least effective tool of wayfinding. Good architecture is among the best.

Consider the new international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. The physical space tells you everything you need to know about how to move through it, without you even realizing it.

140806_EYE_AtlantaNew04
The international terminal at the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Courtesy of Marlo Herring/Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport

The terminal maximizes “sight line,” because if you can see your destination, you don’t need signs.

Rather than meeting you head-on when you walk in, the ticket counters are angled.

Once you get your tickets, these angled counters subtly push you in the right direction.

There are also subtle cues in the floor. The tiles are angled so as to point you toward the security checkpoint.

140806_EYE_AtlantaNew07
Passengers checking in at the new international terminal at the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Courtesy of Marlo Herring/Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport

There’s another set of tiles inside the dominant grid pattern: a “yellow brick road” that cleaves this corridor out of negative space heading directly toward security.

Not all airports are this streamlined and minimal, however. Often, as a traveler, you’ll have to find your way as you’re being bombarded with all sorts of images that compete with the wayfinding. So the key here is to make the signage stand out by being drab and plain, so you can tune out all the glitz.

140806_EYE_AtlantaNew05
Floor tiles at the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport's international terminal are angled to point you in the right direction.

Courtesy of Marlo Herring/Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport

However, wayfinding and commerce aren’t necessarily in competition. In fact, often it’s the case that an airport’s wayfinding is there to give you a sense of calm as you navigate an unfamiliar environment. The hope is that you’ll be more likely to buy stuff than if you were stressed and in a hurry. And sometimes, wayfinding will steer you toward opportunities to spend money.

In theory, wayfinding should work whether you’re aware of it or not, but learning to see the subtle wayfinding cues in the built landscape can help you understand how you make your decisions. It can also make you question if you’re the one even making your own decisions at all.

140806_EYE_SamGreenspan1
Outside a food court in the Atlanta airport, tiling helps steer passenger flow.

Courtesy of Sam Greenspan

To learn more, check out the 99% Invisible post or listen to the show.

99% Invisible is distributed by PRX.

TODAY IN SLATE

Justice Ginsburg’s Crucial Dissent in the Texas Voter ID Case

The Jarring Experience of Watching White Americans Speak Frankly About Race

How Facebook’s New Feature Could Come in Handy During a Disaster

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

View From Chicago

You Should Be Able to Sell Your Kidney

Or at least trade it for something.

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Terrorism, Immigration, and Ebola Are Combining Into a Supercluster of Anxiety

The Legal Loophole That Allows Microsoft to Seize Assets and Shut Down Companies

  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Oct. 19 2014 1:05 PM Dawn Patrol Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s critically important 5 a.m. wake-up call on voting rights.
  Business
Business Insider
Oct. 19 2014 11:40 AM Pot-Infused Halloween Candy Is a Worry in Colorado
  Life
Outward
Oct. 17 2014 5:26 PM Judge Begrudgingly Strikes Down Wyoming’s Gay Marriage Ban
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 17 2014 4:23 PM A Former FBI Agent On Why It’s So Hard to Prosecute Gamergate Trolls
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Oct. 17 2014 1:33 PM What Happened at Slate This Week?  Senior editor David Haglund shares what intrigued him at the magazine. 
  Arts
Behold
Oct. 19 2014 4:33 PM Building Family Relationships in and out of Juvenile Detention Centers
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 17 2014 6:05 PM There Is No Better Use For Drones Than Star Wars Reenactments
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 20 2014 7:00 AM Gallery: The Red Planet and the Comet
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 16 2014 2:03 PM Oh What a Relief It Is How the rise of the bullpen has changed baseball.