Attributing and defining meaning to the built environment: The semiotics of wayfinding


  • Lauren H. Mandel

    1. Florida State University, College of Communication & Information, School of Library & Information Studies, Louis Shores Building, 142 Collegiate Loop, P.O. Box 3062100, Tallahassee, FL 32306-2100
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Built environments have varying levels of wayfinding ease, and low levels of wayfinding ease matter because difficulty in wayfinding leads to stress and frustration, functional inefficiency, inaccessibility, and poor safety. When individuals are lost or disoriented, they blame themselves, feel stupid, frustrated, and anxious, and they can be angry or resent the environment because of the difficult situation the environment has put them in.

There is no cohesive understanding of which information within wayfinding tools successfully assists wayfinders. Gleaning this inherent quality could propel wayfinding theory forward so it could be applied to improve the physical manifestations of wayfinding tools and overall wayfinding ease in a facility. In order to understand which information improves wayfinding ease and what specifically about that information effects the improvement, one would need to understand the meaning(s) a community infers from different forms of wayfinding information. One possibility for wayfinding research lies in semiotics, the study of signs and their meanings.

Understanding the meanings wayfinders infer from wayfinding tools is critical to design facilities that can be navigated more effectively and efficiently. This would be possible through research that attempted to understand semiotically which meanings architects, interior designers, and other experts ascribe to wayfinding tools and how this matches or differs from the meanings wayfinders infer from the tools. Understanding this difference may lead to the design of wayfinding tools based on users' pre-existing notions of the meaning(s) of environmental symbols, decreasing feelings of lostness, frustration, and anxiety and increasing user satisfaction with a given built environment.