Orientation, Navigation and Wayfinding

Ever been lost in a museum or zoo? Everyone has. But we need more than better signs, we need to understand and support visitors' needs at every stage of their journey.

Words like orientation, navigation, wayfinding and signage are often used interchangeably. But they have very different meanings and each is crucial to successful visitor outcomes.

Let's start with Orientation. This is about comprehending the overall offer. What is there to see? What is there to do? What's unmissable? How long will it take? This overview puts visitors in control of their own visit and allows them to make informed choices rather than just wander aimlessly. But Orientation walls or boards can be difficult to decipher and often lack visual cues. Printed maps are often pocketed and read later at home but can seem like complex architectural drawings to people who don't know the building. And staff, who could so easily guide, direct and excite the newly arrived visitor often lurk behind desks or look more like security guards. Poor orientation is directly correlated to lower levels of engagement.

Then there's Navigation. This is about choosing a destination in the building and finding your way there. Whether you start with a map or a directional sign or follow staff advice, pretty soon visitors want reassurance that they are still on track. Typically, they need this at 'decision points' and when traversing long corridors. Usually, this relies on signage, but maps can include recognisable internal landmarks and there's no substitute for friendly staff who help you along the way (though this is incredibly rare). Which room is hardest to find? How do you make it easier?

Wayfinding is something different again. This is presenting visitors with a series of choices of where to go next at key 'junctions' in the building. Typically, visitors have just emerged from one experience and are offered a choice of others (with directions). To be effective, wayfinding has to be more than signs pointing towards named rooms. It has to be a series of evocative propositions with attractor power that whet the appetite. Sometimes the names of the galleries we sign people towards give no hint of what is on offer - 'The Williamson Wing' - or else they are simply classifications - ’1400-1650' or 'Numismatics'.

In each of the above visitor situations, it's about more than signs and what's written on them. We can help you to understand visitor journeys, to walk a mile in visitors' shoes and to design an holistic strategy to support visitors' exploration, discovery and engagement. We can work with curators, interpreters, designers, and front line visitor services staff to make your building easy to orientate, navigate and wayfind.

A co-founder of Morris Hargreaves McIntyre, Andrew is one of the UK’s leading authorities on...