Wayfinding’s engagement with hearts and minds

Sir Winston Churchill, calling for the reconstruction of the British House of Commons after it had been bombed during a blitz, observed, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Churchill longed to have restored the chamber in which he had spent so many years of his life.

However, it is not through habit and familiarity alone that our buildings shape us. Recent research indicates that when the design of buildings seeks to guide us through their interiors, our minds and emotions reciprocally come into play, influencing how we move through and how we feel about the space we’re in.

The basic concept behind wayfinding is straightforward: to get you wherever you are going via the most direct and simplest route available. That may work for logically minded Vulcans like Mr. Spock, but we humans are a tad more complicated.

Another of Churchill’s countrymen, the Romantic poet William Wordsworth, surmised that our experience of the world — including the interiors of buildings — is built up from a combination of what we perceive through our senses and what we create through our powers of thought and imagination. How we respond to and make our way through a building depends in part on what we bring into it.

One reason for this, according to Professor Jessica Witt, a cognitive psychology researcher at Colorado State University, is that our perceptions can be modified by our actions and reactions. Witt has conducted a number of experiments demonstrating that vision is action-specific.

She found, for example, that when baseball players are hitting better, they see the ball as bigger, and that someone preparing to climb a hill will perceive it as being steeper if they are carrying a heavy backpack or are not in good physical condition. Her most recent experiment showed subjects playing a Pong-like computer game judged the paddle to be smaller if the ball was moving toward them faster than when it moved more slowly, although the size of the paddle, in fact, never altered.

The same type of phenomenon occurs during wayfinding. People may have an easier or more difficult time making their way through a building or in remembering the route they took depending on how they respond emotionally and aesthetically to the space.

Two studies, conducted by different teams, indicate that visual landmarks integrated into the design to facilitate wayfinding may trigger emotional responses that can affect the decisions individuals make during wayfinding and the routes they memorize and reuse.

A team of Italian researchers investigated to what extent subjects’ ability to remember a route they navigated would be affected by emotionally positive or negative landmarks, in contrast to neutral landmarks. They found that subjects were better able to remember emotional landmarks and thus reconstruct their route. Their study showed that positive emotional landmarks were more effective for this purpose than negative.

Quite the contrary conclusion was reached by German researchers in a similar study. Their results showed that the best wayfinding and recognition performance occurs when negatively laden landmarks are used. Subjects were more likely to remember negatively laden landmarks for a longer period of time than either neutral or positive landmarks.

Clearly, more research is needed to better understand which types of positive and negative landmarks evoke which types of responses. But the findings of both studies show that we rely not only on visual signals — such as signs, patterns and corridors — to navigate our way through buildings, but also on our emotional responses and what we anticipate we will encounter.

“Wayfinding is a dynamic process, the outcome of which is based on decision-making that can be affected by cognitive loads, emotions and individual experience,” David Watts, human factors researcher and managing director with British design firm CCD, argues in a recent article in the Journal of Urban Renewal and Regeneration.

“Designers must undertake user research when briefed to develop systems that respond to people’s needs. … Users are an intrinsic part of the design process.”

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