With two of my classes focused on design, I’ve found myself paying a lot more attention to the things in my environment that I used to take for granted. Signage and pictograms have come to the top of that list. Before learning about the practice of wayfinding, I think that if someone had asked me about how all those little bits of information get put up around a space, I would have told them there was some sort of national or international standard. Architects and developers could buy icons and signs from one monopolized company, maybe customize them a bit with colors or logos, and then install them.
I don’t think it’s a unique revelation that I’ve had through this class, but it has made me appreciate what’s unique in my surroundings. I’ve been trying to unpack the potential decision-making and design processes in wayfinding systems that jump out at me. If there is enough monotony to make me (and many others) think the whole show was run by one distributor, those systems that so adamantly depart from the standard are less common, and may have interesting stories to tell. Over the past week my top two systems, for better or worse, were at the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization and Manarat al Saadiyat.
Upon entering the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization, one of the first things visitors see is a glaring panel of pictograms. They fill an entire A4 sheet, which sits in a clear frame on the entry desk. They’re weird for several reasons. The bright green color, which does not match the interior of the museum, is not repeated in the rest of the signage. There are no directional symbols to indicate where any of the things the pictograms represent actually are. After I took the photo, it dawned on me that it was perhaps a tool for visitors who speak neither English nor Arabic (never mind the fact that they won’t be able to get much out of the museum) to point to the amenities they seek, and then be directed towards them by a staffer stationed at the desk. I’m surprised not to have seen a similar system in other international cultural venues: it’s a straightforward, low-cost solution that provides simple infrastructure to support the gestures that resourceful people already gravitate towards naturally.
But the fact that it exists means the main wayfinding system – the one that was much more expensive to design and implement – failed. If signage directing visitors towards the same places featured on the pictogram sheet actually achieved its purpose, such an improvised solution would never have appeared. The building was split into two wings at the center, and each wing had only one sign pointing users forwards towards each location.
Another small observation from the Sharjah Museum was the bathroom pictogram. While they were inconsistent, there were some pictograms that featured a woman icon wearing a longer dress than standard. I know that these “modest” pictograms are set to be implemented by Tarek Atrissi in the Qatar National Library, but had not seen them before apart from these two instances.
The signage at Manarat al Saadiyat also struck my eye, as it was another answer to my question about how to make “creative” signs. The triangular shape incorporates a second layer of information, an arrow, into the design. The whole thing is printed flat and pasted to a central wall, mimicking the wall-mounted pieces inside of the gallery. The triangle/arrow design is clever, but it’s also fairly obvious that someone was looking to make something artistic and unique for a place that declares itself exactly that. From a wayfinding perspective, there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the sizing of the triangles in relation to the places they represent. A marketing approach might place the cafe on a large triangle, and a visitor experience approach might make the restroom triangles – likely the most frequently referenced – larger than the rest. But this layout seems to randomize both the size and information of the arrows, prioritizing the aesthetic over its function.