Posted by Chris on 23.02.2011

The sociologist Georg Simmel, writing in 1913, argued that the environment of the contemporary metropolis, with its overwhelming amount of stimuli, forces its inhabitants to become blasé and uncaring towards their fellow human beings. If we were to care for each person we met on the street as much as we cared for our friends and partners, then the level of psychic stimuli we receive would overwhelm us, causing us to cease functioning.

The only way for the self to survive is by severing these connections—adopting a blasé attitude to the individuals we meet.

But what if the same idea applies to wayfinding systems? If people become overwhelmed by information, they simply cease to receive anything new until they have processed the first batch. The metropolis has a tendency to overload people with signs, be they advertisements, directional information or simple place-marking—much as it is populated with people, it must also be populated with information for those people.


View of Times Square signageView of Times Square signage
Excessive signage means that little information can be absorbed.


By forcing people to switch off their information processing, this excess signage may actually be training people to ignore signed information in other contexts. People generally know to rely on wayshowing systems in information critical environments—while driving, at hospitals, etc. The challenge becomes getting people to pay attention to non-critical information.

[For those playing the home game, have a look at this fantastic article on a forgotten piece of Times Square signage.]

This is the sort of thing that advertisers have dealt with for a long time, and explains why so much of advertising is an attempt to grab attention. Witness the rise of Flash advertisements to understand how this phenomenon works—it starts as a simple text ad, gains animation, and then suddenly its full live-action video with voice and music. And so we learn to ignore yet one more thing in our daily lives. This is how the blasé attitude becomes commonplace.

If users have adopted a blasé attitude towards signage, are there methods to get them to pay attention when we want them to?

I would suggest a couple of possible solutions:

  1. Make it beautiful. People love beautiful things, and are more likely to spend time and attention on the things they love. Have a look at the Fun Theory for an inspiringly great example of this.
  2. Make it useful. Consider utility above all else, and at every stage—how useful is it to provide that piece of information at that specific point? Büro Uebele’s excellent system for Parsevalschule Bitterfeld is an interesting attempt at providing visual relevance according to location, as separate from simply deciding which locations to show.
  3. Break from conformity (but just a little). Often the most successful designs, advertisements and products do not conform to current paradigms—most people would think that the iPhone was a perfect example of this. Perhaps even its big brother, the iPad, which blew past all predictions of its success—and yet they’d be wrong. Often, it’s not just about being innovative, but about learning from the mistakes of the past, and then executing really well.

Of course, this is all easier said than done. Often, we attempt to simplify as much as possible the information delivery throughout the sites we work on. This means minimal signage, and working with architects to create intuitive environments. It also means that any information we do spell out is more effective, because there is little background noise to dampen the effect.

Ultimately, the best wayshowing systems will combine all three of the above characteristics, while keeping things as simple as possible.