A Semester Without Wayfinding

For my last blog entry of the semester, I wanted to write something a little more creative. I thought I would talk some of the emotional side of wayfinding. We have spoken a lot about wayfinding on the scale of buildings and campuses, and perhaps less about wayfinding in an urban environment as it impacts the individual (besides the case of Venice, of course). There is a Gene Tracy essay published on Aeon in 2015 called “Sky readers” that talks about what happens when humans lose the sky. For most of our history, Tracy says, navigation by stars was non-negotiable. Knowing where we are in the world (and later, where Earth is in the universe) is integral to the human experience. Tracy even pinpoints navigation as key to the development of the self:

“The development of our sense of spatial relationships – the ongoing discovery of where I am – is deeply entwined with memory formation. Neuroscience studies reveal that this is because forming the knowledge of place, and building that sense of our relation to other parts of the world, requires the brain to combine several different sense modalities. Hence information must be stored and then retrieved from memory, sifted and examined, and the brain’s theory of where we are in the world constructed. Combine this with the fact that it is through memory that the I endures, that memories are most effectively formed when there is some emotional charge attached, and we can see why our sense of place can be so entangled with our sense of who we are, why to be at no place is akin to being no one.”

For the past five years of my life, the formation of who I am as a person has been able to develop through my spatial experience in the world. I didn’t know my home city until I started driving and had to figure out how to get myself around. This was the first time I learned how to read a map. Later, when I moved to Valencia, Spain, I had my first real encounter with a city on foot. I got lost after my bus stop and was an hour late to my first day of class. That evening I got lost a second time trying to find my apartment. Finding my way through the city, paying attention to colored awnings or outdoor furniture or street names, was the first time I ever felt like I knew a city — or at least a part of one. I had routes programmed into my mind and legs, could list metro and bus stops in order, and felt like I had achieved something by gaining enough knowledge to live and move comfortably in the city.

When I moved to Shanghai for college, I started the same process. Like the LED-covered Dubai building Goffredo described, Shanghai defies permanence. Because so much of life takes place on the street — cooking, clothes washing, majiang — the landscape changes constantly. City blocks are razed and rebuilt within weeks. And as a foreigner with no Mandarin background, signage on buildings that would otherwise be helpful in creating a memory map become, in Chinese characters, a rainbow of unknowable information. Neighborhoods are impossible to define, and landmarks  In exchange for feeling somewhat mixed-up almost all the time, the foreigner’s mind in Shanghai is constantly stimulated and challenged without ever seeking it out.

Despite possessing some of the most appallingly unhelpful subway signage I have ever encountered (but hey, New Yorkers are proud that their public transportation is confusing for outsiders to navigate), New York was a combination of the two. There is enough life embedded in its gridded streets to allow for a degree of serendipity in the wayNew York is explored. In all of these places, the process of finding my way has been exhilarating and fulfilling.

It has taken me some time to unpack what it is that makes the wayfinding experience in Abu Dhabi and on the Saadiyat campus so different from other cities.  On campus, the lack of proper signage and oriented maps amplifies the fishbowl effect; the feeling of being an outsider overwhelms any sense of pleasure in feeling lost. After a day or two, it’s easy to find one’s way around the whole campus, and maybe even get tired of its predictability. In the city, the prominence of cars from place to place makes it difficult to have the organic wayfinding experience that is provided by pedestrian travel. For someone here for a short time and traveling primarily by cab, it is difficult to string together a map of the city from various highways. In my mind, Abu Dhabi exists as a collection of disjointed microspots to which visitors drive, enjoy, and leave. The in-between — the navigation — melts away, and part of the city is lost.


Signage and Pictograms in Practice

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. IMG_3269 2

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.IMG_3268 2

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. IMG_3271 2

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. IMG_3284 2

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.


I grew up in the age of the starchitect. From early gradeschool, I read theorists and journalists who shouted this claim in anything they wrote: the 2000s architect possessed a celebrity like never before, which often forced their name and acclaim to precede any actual discussion of their work. I loved having a word for the precise thing I wanted to be – an architect with all the pomp and circumstance of a rockstar – and loved even more the fact that expressing so was proof that I was aware and literate within my aspirational field.

Today, those same writers talk announce the end of the age of the starchitect, but the men and women who became my generation’s canon still hold active practices. I’ve known the name Rem Koolhaas forever because I felt like I had to. When I excitedly called home to my parents to tell them that I would be seeing him speak in Dubai, I called him “one of my favorite architects” to translate economically from the language of archispeak, but that’s not what I meant. Koolhaas was always sort of an obligation. As I got older and realized that many of my starchitects worked with oppressive government regimes or designed only for the elite, the image I had of them as being the best that the field had to offer started to fade. My expectations for the lecture in Dubai were to become more acquainted with Koolhaas’s design ethos, and to begin disliking him in the process.

I was wrong from the beginning of the talk. Koolhaas essentially provided a survey of the work of his firm, Office of Metropolitan Architects, in the UAE. His mirror research agency AMO had basically designed half of Dubai. Koolhaas refers to the city as a fantasy land, where the best and most iconic towers of every city and imagination had wandered out of the desert on stilted legs and all wound up in this city by the sea. You can see what he’s talking about from practically any angle, any scale in Dubai. It was the thing that screamed at me loudest the first time I drove into the city. And it’s not a new observation, either: everyone seems to notice exactly that fantastical element about Dubai. But the difference (and the thing that shocked me) is, in Koolhaas’s mind, the magical possibility that exists in all of that newness is still alive, and the city is more than the urban failure so many others are eager to claim.

Dubai isn’t a city collaged of projects desperate to announce themselves and their clients, it’s a collection of opportunities to do things that don’t exist anywhere else. Perhaps it’s Koolhaas’s celebrity that allows him to speak like this. He mentions a tower from one of his first trips to Dubai that is “just as beautiful” as Gensler Design’s Shanghai Tower. The name of the Dubai building and architect don’t matter – the point is that they’re one in many, and essentially knock offs. Who else would get to declare the equality of two projects like that to make a highly debatable point? But Koolhaas’s genuine belief in possibility in Dubai is evident from the start, as well as its obvious guiding force in his design work there.

courtesy OMA

AMO’s many research projects for Dubai reflected the architect’s respect for the place and its people. The two that most excited me were Waterfront City and the long-term urban plan. Waterfront City, Koolhaas explains, is an attempt to create density and walkability in anticipation of Dubai’s future. It’s a huge square island in the middle of four of the city’s premiere districts. Waterfront City is built on a grid, at a scale small enough that it hopes to reduce the need for automobiles. Koolhaas’s team studied thousands of potential buildings to fill each spot on the grid, keeping in mind two things: visibility and landmarks. Each little model from the study could be added and removed from the square island to create the best cocktail of dense residential and commercial towers, low-rise cultural buildings, and recognizable landmarks. The result is a knowable city: it wants to be traversed and memorized as naturally as a favorite poem is committed to memory.

On an even larger scale, AMO’s long-term plan for Dubai aims to provide an enjoyable urban experience for citizens of all economic backgrounds. By preserving a thick belt of affordable housing within reasonable walking distance from the city, the plan attempts to keep lower-income citizens, for whom the real estate market does not operate, from falling out of the care of the city. It also provides a built directional barrier meant to encourage Dubai’s growth to happen densely: the belt is constructed kilometers away from the current city border, providing enough room for the anticipated urbanization in the coming years.

Unfortunately, neither of these projects was ever made a reality. OMA’s first built project in Dubai was the Alserkal Avenue venue in which the lecture took place. It’s a thoughtful project that’s aware of its environmental context, but of course comes far from the goals of a sustainable urban future that the larger-scale AMO projects have aimed for.

Learning What You’ve Learned

Have you ever read back over an old paper, even one from just a month or two ago, and immediately wanted to rewrite the entire thing? It’s an odd moment, because you’re cringing over work that used to make you proud, but also realizing how much you’ve learned since writing it. It’s hard to have this instance of recognition without a foil — in this case, an old paper — against which to weigh your current knowledge.

On the evening of Saturday, February 25, I had an experience that gave me a chance to test how much I’d learned in this first month of Wayfinding, through design constraints that I felt were opposed to successful wayfinding design. I was helping out with the 24X event hosted by the Interactive Media department and tasked with putting up some signs to lead visitors to the room where presentations were taking place. The fact that these signs were essential enough to cause the event organizers anxiety at the thought of them not being finished in time is an issue in itself. The Arts Center is so maze-like that they were concerned that, without signs, visitors would give up trying to find the room and skip the event altogether.

But given that the signs were a necessity for hosting an event in C3, I found myself working under an interesting set of constraints. The signs had to be made from the existing 24x poster design and fit the image. The posters were made to advertise the event, so it only makes sense that “24X” takes up a huge, central portion of the page. The directional arrows had to fit in the remaining space, so they were smaller than ideal. I opted to get rid of the slogan and website links, which I felt were the most non-essential information, both to make more space for the arrow and to remove some of the visual noise around it.

The arrow was not supposed to disturb the original design, but the background colors posed an issue. Any arrow of significant size would stretch across all three colors of the background, meaning a piece of any arrow that used the preexisting color scheme would disappear. I took two of the background colors to use as negative-positive fill for the arrow (as opposed to three, which I felt would be distracting). I could hear Goffredo yelling at me for essentially designing a camouflaged arrow, but my other designs with outlines and more standout colors were rejected. I also added some text to make it super clear towards which room visitors were being led.

Existing Poster
Wayfinding Sign

After finalizing the signage design, the hanging posed another problem. The Tricia Brown Dance Company was scheduled in the C3 atrium at around the same time as the 24X presentations, so the organizers were very much concerned with not ruining the backdrop of the performance. This meant that I was advised against hanging signs on the most visible walls, hanging large signs, and hanging too many signs. Since we were addressing visitors coming in through the front doors and trying to direct them towards the leftmost staircase, I took advantage of the roundness of the columns by angling signs towards the doors and away from the performance space. As we began to run out of signs, my hanging partner and I started to disagree about where our limited number of remaining arrows would go. I thought that one best belonged at the top of the stairs to give a quick signal as to which direction to turn at the platform. My partner thought it would be better suited above the doorframe of the presentation room, which was already marked on both sides of each door. It came down to a question of wayfinding vs. branding, and my partner’s seniority meant that branding won.

Branding also triumphed in our singular floor sign, which was brilliantly made with red electrical tape that likely garnered more attention than the camouflaged arrows. The floor sign would have been perfect at each doorway to point visitors towards the proper staircase, but this was also thought to be potentially disturbing to the dance performance. All in all, the fact that we had any signage system at all definitely helped at least a few of the people who had come to see the event, and their presence combined with the consistency of 24X’s branding made the location issue fade into the background, allowing people to enjoy the main event and not get caught up in the process of getting there.

On Receiving a Brief

I have never had to think about the channels of communication that brings design from problem identification to final product. I have read about the design process; about identifying the problem, collecting observations, prototyping, gathering feedback, more prototyping, more feedback. I have read about how the client can sometimes be something of an obnoxious roadblock to designers getting work done properly, imposing budget, deadlines, and their own opinions on the project (click the link — it’s hilarious). But I have never really thought about the very beginning of the process, before this whole process has begun and when the designer is first hired.

The brief we received in class yesterday opened up a whole new host of potential communication issues I can now imagine happening in a project. The most salient one, to me, was layered and complex but can be identified through one root issue: the identification of a problem to be answered. What is the designer’s role when the client has identified a problem that doesn’t exist? In our case, it felt as though the client was eager to find a student concern that matched with the ideal solution of reappropriating the D1 cafeteria for casual student use. It’s certainly a noble cause, and I have no reason to believe that anything other than a hope to improve student life is motivating it. But without a survey or widespread data collection, the client had already selected several (conflicting) issues to address in one space, before consulting a designer with a trained eye for problem solving.

It certainly makes sense. Clients work intimately with the people and places they do. In an ideal world, the would know the design issues better than anyone else and have the responsibility to communicate them to a designer only for a professional solution. But in this case, it is possible that the design question was a backhanded justification for the “solution,” and in any case is only colloquially researched and therefore has room for misdiagnosis.

The issue then complicates itself when the client, having identified what they believe the design question to be, moves forward with specific solution design to identify said question. There is an emotional attachment to this type of preliminary design work that causes someone to only bring in an architect — a trained design professional — in the final stages of the project as a consultant for structural soundness and local building code. What is the ethical duty of a designer who comes in late to the project and is expected to carry out the work that the client has already done, based on an issue, or many issues, that may not exist? This semester will be a careful dance between doing right by the design process and honoring these thoughtful designs by the client, and I hope to learn a lot about the questions I have asked in this blog post.

Project Ideas

When I first arrived at NYUAD two weeks ago, using the cafeteria gave me so much anxiety that I avoided eating altogether for more than a day. I choose the word “using” here because the cafeteria is more than a place: it is a combination of several different systems and programs, and therefore more complex than a sit-down restaurant where the user follows a single, simple procedure from beginning to end.

Ideally, the NYUAD cafeteria would work in a similarly intuitive way. Users would understand upon entry what steps are required for the end goal of eating a meal, and snake through the system seamlessly as part of a collective. In my mind, the most effective and pleasant cafeteria situation incorporates new users into a system that has already been clearly developed. You walk in, see the queue, and go join it. As much as I support minimal programming and full user autonomy, in this particular case, the abundance of choice is overwhelming and inefficient.

Some Specific Problem Areas:

  1. Messy program- enter entrance point requires the user to wander around both sides before deciding what to order
  2. Different ordering systems at each station. Some require a receipt, others you point to what you want, others you order from an incomplete hanging menu.
  3. Signage
    1. Unclear – vague wording
    2. Inconvenient – small in size, placed on walls, columns, and individual tables that don’t make themselves immediately visible
    3. Incomplete – not all menu items are listed, and not all necessary information is present
    4. Inconsistent – menu systems that begin at one station are not carried through to the end
  4. Cashier – faces backwards, one side only works for certain purchases, very little room to queue (is this a problem? I never use the cafeteria during peak hours. Will have to do some more research)

Change Implementation: 

These will require a lot of careful brainstorming before any action is taken, but here are some initial ideas.

Messy program: move the red half walls to direct traffic from beginning to end, instead of starting at the middle.

Different ordering systems: make it clear from the beginning, or at least in a sign at the station itself, that a special ordering process is required. This goes hand in hand with moving the half walls — the resulting queue would provide additional space for conveying information before people arrive at the food.

Signage: Revise the meal club signs, have consistent signs to show what menu items count for types of meals, create larger signage (including a very simple map!) at the entrance

Cashier: also part of the new program, which may require moving the cashier altogether to make a better space for queuing


Beware the Door

Emergency exits are one of the most basic but fundamental elements of architectural safety a building can provide. This is why countries all over stipulate a number of exit routes in their building code. For a large, maze-like space like the NYUAD art center, this flow of bodies becomes all the more important in getting people out to safety before it’s too late. Unfortunately, the nature of crisis design means that its full function is not revealed until the crisis hits. This is only worsened by the fact that the same building codes that require design for safety allow it to be realized in a way that negates safety. This particular emergency exit is a prime example of what is lost between code and practice.



The primary issue with this doorway lies in its traffic flow. In an emergency, persons inside the building come from all directions, symbolized by the red arrows. In a chaotic situation an orderly line, while ideal, is unlikely, and the multiple streams of people have the potential to create a bottleneck at the door.

This alone is less significant without the multidirectional traffic of zones A and B. The red zone A denotes the area of traffic flow out of the building.The green zone B denotes the extinguisher and fire hose that will require immediate access by firefighters. As you can see, the two zones overlap. Not only is outgoing traffic in the way of the equipment, but firefighters will have to obstruct the exit pathway to reach the fire. The three green arrows represent the movement of the firefighters and equipment back and forth from the place of storage.

Apart from this, there are several other problems that contribute to the inefficiency of this exit. The first door leads to a vestibule that connects yet another stream of exit-ers via the stairway before the final exit to the outside. The vestibule lighting is triggered by a motion sensor that is slow to react, sealing the space in chaos-inducing darkness until it decides to turn on. It is possible that some will run into the back of the stairway in the darkness. The final door is quite slim and creates yet another bottleneck, this time with the two streams of people coming from inside and descending down the stairs.

The signage directing traffic towards the door is also small and difficult to follow,  which presents a problem before people even arrive at the troublesome corner exit.