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

Authors

  • 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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Abstract

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.

The Wayfinding Problem

Wayfinding is, “man's ability to reach spatial destinations in novel as well as in familiar settings” (Passini, 1981, p. 17). This ability may be inherent within a person, but it can be enhanced by a facility's wayfinding information system, which begins with spatial organization and extends to include maps, signs, architectural cues, and verbal assistance (Arthur & Passini, 1992). Because individuals use this information system as a basis for their wayfinding behavior, it must contain all the information necessary to make and execute decisions along a route and to develop a mental representation of the setting (i.e., the cognitive map). This information system makes up the environmental communication of a built environment (e.g., facility) and should be designed as a whole (Brown, 2002).

Built environments have varying levels of wayfinding ease, something Ruzic attributes to lack of control within the environmental system (Juhasz, Saegert, Oury, Ruzic, & Friedman, 1978). Low levels of wayfinding ease matter because difficulty in wayfinding leads to stress and frustration, functional inefficiency, inaccessibility, and poor safety (Arthur & Passini, 1992). 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.

However, there is no cohesive understanding of which information within wayfinding tools successfully assists wayfinders. Gleaning this inherent quality could propel wayfinding theory forward to the point that 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.

The Semiotic Possibility

Within semiotics, there are two main schools of thought Peirce's and Saussure's. Saussure explained that the sign is a two-sided psychological entity that unites concept (or signified) with sound-image (or signifier) by having signified and signifier recall each other (Raber, 2003). Saussure's semiotics requires an intentional purpose of the sign, identifies the arbitrary nature of the relationship between signifier and signified in the sign, and necessitates that explanation of meaning be accomplished within the context of society (Culler, 1986). It is important for wayfinding research to rely on Saussure's semiotics rather than Peirce's since wayfinding signs must have intentional meaning in them, the meaning of location and direction (sign), expressed through the unification of arrows or words (signifiers) and content or language (signified).

The meaning of a wayfinding sign is not inherent to the sign or static, and it may not cross societal boundaries. Saussure tells us that any sign system must be part of a community because value exists only within the community (i.e., not before it, outside it, or within its individual members) (Saussure, 2006). This means that any semiotic analysis of wayfinding signs must occur within a given society, must take into account the context of that society, and may not be generalizable outside that society.

For example, Wagner used semiotics to analyze the meaning(s) communities inferred in their public library buildings (1992). Wagner based her research on the premise that public library buildings represent a nonverbal communication process in which the building façade becomes the expression/signifier and the feeling people get from the library becomes the content/signified. She analyzed different architectural styles of public library buildings in Perth, Australia, as well as interior signage. Wagner found that interior signs were more controlled by the staff than exterior signs which were controlled by the State, and the staff used these interior signs to manipulate space and segregate open and closed domains, such as staff vs. user space, noisy vs. quiet space, and age group separations. She concluded that libraries can manipulate interior signage to signify space allocation.

Semiotics of Wayfinding

Saussure predicted that the domain of semiology would expand since all forms, rites, and customs have semiological character (Wolf & Komatsu, 1997). Similarly, Raber identifies that representation, production of culture, and signs used for communication are at the heart of semiotics and Information Science (2003). Therefore, questions can be asked through semiotics about the meaning of the built environment (including library, museum, and other information center architecture) and wayfinding tools. Following Warner's explanation of semiotics as the study of social sign systems that are concerned with creating order by system construction (1990), semiotics can be employed to manipulate systems, order, and control by altering signage within facilities.

Semiotics allows questions about human information-seeking behavior that incorporate ideas of the social constructs of meanings and information needs. This can be applied to the field of wayfinding, a field that asks about human spatial information behavior.

Potential Research Questions

Wayfinding research generally focuses on two main aspects of the wayfinding problem:

  • A. How successfully can wayfinders (human or animal) navigate a built or natural environment?; or

  • B. How effective are the wayfinding tools in a given built environment?

Question A addresses the inherent wayfinding skills of the research subjects and would not be enhanced by the semiotic framework. Question B, however, would benefit from analysis through semiotics. Examples of semiotically-addressed wayfinding research questions include:

  • 1.What it is about the meaning of signs, architectural cues, etc. that impacts their effectiveness at increasing wayfinding ease?; and
  • 2How can wayfinding tools be designed, evaluated, and implemented that do increase the wayfinding ease of a built environment? More specifically,
  • 3How do architects, interior designers, and other experts use words, images, colors, etc. (i.e., the signifiers) in wayfinding tools to convey direction, location, etc. (i.e., the signified) to wayfinders?;
  • 4How do wayfinders interpret the signifiers (words, images, colors, etc.) to glean some meaning/content from wayfinding tools?;
  • 5To what extent do experts' intended meanings of wayfinding tools match the wayfinders inferred meanings?; and
  • 6How can this match of meanings be increased so wayfinding tools better assist wayfinders navigate a built environment?

Potential Research Methods

This research can be conducted in numerous ways, such as through experiments, quasi-experiments, observational methods, surveys, interviews, focus groups, etc. The specific example detailed here is based on experimental design because wayfinding research often involves experimental and quasi-experimental methods, but there are countless other possible research studies and designs.

One example is based on an experiment conducted in an academic library facility (Eaton, 1991). Eaton did not approach the research through the semiotic framework, but her research could be expanded through semiotics. Eaton sent subjects on a wayfinding quest in the library, giving them specific library items to locate and measuring success rates by closeness to the straightest path, time involved in task completion, and success rate.

A semiotic expansion of this research could include post-task interviews or questionnaires that ask subjects which existing wayfinding tools in the library helped them complete tasks, or not, what about those tools helped or hindered task completion, and what meanings they attribute to the various wayfinding tools. Their responses could be compared with pre-existing societal attributions of meaning to the wayfinding tools, such as directional arrows meaning go forward, back, right and left, or importance levels attributed to various font sizes, boldness, and colors. The responses also could be compared with architects, interior designers, and others interpretations of the meanings of the wayfinding tools.

Conclusion

Wayfinding is the human ability to find a desired location. This ability is influenced by several factors including layout of setting and quality of environmental information. This paper has focused on understanding and improving the quality of environmental information, specifically wayfinding tools, through semiotic analysis of those tools. This is possible because wayfinding tools such as architectural, graphic, and verbal information are imbued with meanings that can be understood through the semiotic framework.

Understanding these meanings 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 others 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 within a given built environment. This may increase user satisfaction with the given built environments since users will not have to learn (or re-learn) the meanings of environmental symbols within the built environment.

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