2. Theory: How We Find Our Way

People finding their way
A guest contribution by Patrick Eley and Alan Stevenson.

Compared to the Arctic Tern, a migratory bird that flies from the Arctic to the Antarctic Circle and back again every year, we fare pretty poorly.

Despite our limited wayfinding instincts, wayfinding strategies rely on a solid understanding of how humans navigate. Wayfinding theory can fill entire books, but here’s a one-minute crash course.

In wayfinding, INTUITION refers to known navigational patterns. For example, if there is no information, most people will naturally turn right. By understanding insights like these, we know how we can design wayfinding schemes that feel simpler for the end user.

EXPECTATION takes our past experience of navigating spaces and builds it up into assumptions for the future. For example, we know that when we approach a junction, we will see a street sign. Equally, when we arrive at a hospital, we know there will be a directory sign near the entrance. If we don’t understand human expectations, we fail to create systems that people can trust.

Lastly, DECISION MAKING refers to the questions a person might ask as they move through a space: is this the right lift (or elevator)? Do I turn right here? Can I go through this door? These questions speak to our need for reassurance. One of the key functions of wayfinding, second to showing us where to go, is to reassure us that we’re still going the right way.

Of course, a wayfinding strategy can’t rely on generalisations. We need to understand exactly who is moving through a space and what they’re looking for.


Contributed by Patrick Eley and Alan Stevenson from DNCO an introduction to Chapter 2 of their new book Straight Forward: How Wayfinding Works and Why Strategy Matters.

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