Posted by Yvonne on 15.12.2010

Before we begin, I want you to remember the last time you saw a yellow house. Where was it? Could you still direct someone to it?

Slate Magazine has written a six part series of articles about wayfinding signage.

The secret language of signs“, “Lost in Penn station“, “Legible London“, “Do you draw good maps?“, “The war over exit signs” and “Will GPS kill the sign?” are a decent read for anyone interested in how wayfinding signage works.

Today, however, we’re going to look in a little more depth at the idea of replacing signs with GPS.

Colin Beatty, who’s a satellite navigation specialist, argues that sign design is on the verge of having to reinvent itself, and that eventually we won’t need signs at all. Once the map databases are good enough, we’ll come to trust our digital navigators as much as we now trust our own eyes.

For now though, signs will still do some of the contextual orienting work—teaching us how a region fits together, and not just our own route, something that personal navigation tools aren’t so good at.

However, according to Beatty, in the future we may need some basic emergency signs as a fail-safe. But that’s about it.

Research has shown that personal navigation tools limit our ability to learn routes. GPS obviates our need to memorise routes and may even diminish our capacity to do so.  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.

A recent study of London cab drivers looked at how navigational expertise in one environment could effect one’s wayfinding ability in another. It showed that taxi drivers were better able to plan and execute routes in unfamiliar environments, but that their ability to acquire new spatial knowledge regarding an already known environment was significantly poorer. What does this mean for cognitive mapping?

While it is relatively easy to build new cognitive maps, it is difficult to modify those maps when presented with new information. GPS maps and interactive kiosks pre-configure our cognitive maps for us—this means that when someone is presented with a situation that does not meet with the information presented to them previously, they will have difficulty navigating.

We could assume, then, that the problem lies not with our ability to form cognitive maps but in our ability to modify those maps. In the instances relating specifically to GPS directional aids, our cognitive maps are replaced by indexical maps, where cartographic accuracy replaces navigational ease. For instance, while we may structure our cognitive map of an area based on the landmarks, such as large or distinctive buildings (remember that yellow house?), indexical maps give preference to accuracy over navigational usability.

Mostly people need relevancy over accuracy. Subtly different, but all important when looking at wayfinding.

Although GPS doesn’t work indoors, 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 radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. RFID tags are intelligent bar codes that can talk to a networked system to track every product that you put in your shopping cart or tracking vehicles, like freeway tool passes/devises, subway passes, airline passengers, Alzheimer’s patients and pets.

“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 mobile 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.”

That is surely an entirely new direction for signs.

We at ID/Lab embrace this new technology, it’s something that can’t be stopped and when applied correctly could potentially be more cost effective and efficient then static signage.

However the following question remains:  what do you do when technology fails, eg runs out of batteries? Or do future phones and tracking devices not have that problem?

How are the elderly and non-technical savvy people supposed to navigate in the built environment? Do they get chipped like pets?

And isn’t there some joy in getting lost in a new city and stumbling across something beautiful?

As wayshowers we also know, when people don’t have a specific goal to get somewhere at a set time, we don’t often navigate rationally—we take scenic routes, stop to pick up lunch, or become distracted by window shopping, and gaze in horror/wonder at that yellow house.