Insight Articles

You are where?
Changing journeys in contemporary wayfinding

By Jacqueline Morony, December 2013


Wayfinding has always been about clear and simple communication, getting users from A to B with a sense of confidence and assurance. However in the last decade we have seen two factors shift the way we think about wayfinding. Probably without much surprise, the first factor is the impact of digital technologies and more specifically the adoption rate of smart phones. The other factor has been the desire for open plan spaces. Taking down the walls in internal environments creates beautiful spaces with flexibility but demands wayfinding that thinks beyond signs on doors and finds new ways to define place. 

Smart phones have had a significant impact on wayfinding through their readiness to offer information wherever you go at a moments notice. Their value is not in the piece of slick hardware you carry in your pocket, but the content it can deliver. Wayfinding strategy should consider the role of not just digital hardware, but digital content. This should include content that is experienced at a multi-user level such as plasma screens in the foyer of a building and at a single-user level in the screens we each now carry around everyday with us in the form of our phones. 

Technology today is all about personalisation. We choose what information we want and when we want it. In regards to wayfinding, this curatorial role was traditionally the purview of wayfinding strategists and through their experience would advise on what information was needed at given points to ensure the efficient progress of the journey. This skill is still required, but now it must take into account the interactive and personalized landscape in which we operate. 

When planning an environment and defining the wayfinding strategy, digital requires a content plan to determine what range of messages or uses the medium can have. It is also necessary to take into account how it interacts with the other messages within a viewing distance to ensure clarity and simplicity is always maintained. A content or purpose plan should sit as an umbrella over both traditional signs and digital signage offering a total picture of communication.

An example of digital personalisation can be found in mapping. Press a button, tell me where I am, type an address and tell me how to get there. Do this in one city, do this in the next city, all whilst keeping the system in which I engage the same. The lesson to take away from the likes of Google or Apple maps is an appreciation of the wide spread behaviour they have instilled. They have put the user in charge of how much information they require. This can be simply demonstrated through the ability to zoom in and out of a map to filter for yourself how much detail you require. Within this there is also an increase mobility and transference of skills. From the CBD of Sydney to Perth I can look at the map that I have already decoded and thus can receive information with greater efficiency.

The red dot stating ‘you are here’ on a map in a public place no longer demands that you move toward the dot to orientate yourself, but now the dot moves to you. This personalised mapping has become not just accepted, but expected.  Wayfinding systems should leverage this behaviour and find ways to build upon it and personalise it themselves to reflect their organisation. 

The key insight regarding digital and wayfinding is in defining purpose. Everything fixed (traditional sign) or digital screen added to an environment should have a defined purpose and clear understanding of how it interacts with the other items in a space. This is a clear case of form must follow function. The fundamentals of good wayfinding remain true, with clarity of the communication always being of supreme importance no matter the medium. 

Another difference that smart phones have brought to wayfinding relates to vanity. Remember the way people used to behave with maps…at all costs don’t look like a tourist and pull out a map on the street corner or stand pointing at a sign unless it is absolutely necessary. The fact of human behaviour is that no one likes looking lost, probably even more so than actually being lost. Smart phones are so ubiquitous and used for so many functions that the idea of looking at your phone on the street corner is not a social taboo, rather almost the norm. You now have a socially acceptable map with you at all times.


But these discussions about mapping are not only relevant to external environments. The behaviours learnt through Apple and Google maps guide our expectations of all maps. Interior mapping and location identification is increasingly relevant in large corporate and institution buildings and campus. One trend in workspace design is not only open plan but also flexible seating or activity based workplaces. Imagine everyday turning up to a new desk. That seems simple enough, just sit wherever you like. But now imagine that you work as part of a team but each of you, today and everyday, has a different desk. How do you make it easier to know where your team mates are today? How do you still encourage face to face conversation to keep productivity high and email inboxes low? One of the solutions could be offered through wayfinding and those increasingly handy phones we all carry. 

What we have is a community of people, some of whom I wish to follow and understand their location…sound familiar? Think Facebook,  Foursquare, Instagram and even Grinder. The distinct benefit within all of this technology is the strong behavioural understanding that exists in the general public thanks to these apps. Even for people who don’t actively participate in these apps, the principles by how they work are generally well understood, thus providing greater efficiency in the adoption of systems that build off similar principles. Whilst these apps have been predominantly developed for a macro environment, the same principles can be applied to micro environments such as offices. But there is a catch. When you ‘check in’ to Foursquare and it shows your friends in the area, you understand their location based on traditional, expected landmarks and city planning. For example, Joe is at Café X at 288 George Street. Inside a building we may have levels, but then once on a level what system will we use to define place in an open plan environment? 

This highlights the balance that is required in the adoption of digital wayfinding alongside traditional wayfinding and the need for a vocabulary of a place. Landmarks have long formed a key part of any wayfinding strategy. These could be constructed/formal landmarks such as a large sign at the front entrance to a building or be environmental features/informal landmarks such as a hill or a house painted in a bright colour. These external examples are reasonably obvious, but we can extend the idea and consider landmarks in internal spaces.

When we took down the walls and feel in love with open plan spaces we gave rise to the need to define space in different ways. We no longer have room numbers mimicking a street numbering system to guide us, now we had to look for other cues and an agreed vocabulary for description. The most common landmarks within an interior are architectural. This includes features such as lift lobbies, stairs or large voids, which provide orientation for each level. Another strategy is visual variety within the interior environment. Through interior design, choices in furnishings and finishes can denote different areas, however it is also in this category that we have seen the increasing use of place-making visuals. Place-making has always been distinct from the strict rigor of ‘A to B’ wayfinding. Operating as landmarks, potentially imbued with greater personality, they not only serve the purpose of visual variety but also offer an opportunity to express the qualities of a place or the values of an organization in a memorable way. 

The mediums we use and the environments we are creating may be changing but the fundamentals of what drives wayfinding have not. Behaviour is the key; it’s how people will interact with a space and what do we need them to do. Staying aware of and leveraging social changes in behaviour is necessary in creating effective wayfinding systems. Contemporary journeys need to be a crafted blend of traditional wayfinding, digital content and place-making to deliver both an efficient and engaging experience.  


Branding Universities
Where reputation equals brand equity

By Jacqueline Morony, July 2013


Australian universities are not often seen as the ‘big brands’ of marketing. However, if we think about the typical spend of their customers and the impact their choice can have on the development of their career, plus the length of their relationship with the brand, it begs to ask what makes the grade in terms of branding in this sector?

The average Australian university student will spend approximately $15,000-$35,000 per year for an undergraduate degree.1 In trade terms, international education is Australia’s third largest export industry generating $18 billion in exports in 2009.2  

Often the first university brands to come to mind are what I call the ‘classic’ brands of sandstone and Gothic architecture such as Harvard and Oxford internationally and at home, Sydney University. These university brands are built around a sense of tradition and confidence in their steadfastness. 

Whether built of sandstone or steel, founded 100 or 10 years ago, the most critical factor is reputation and the level of confidence the customer has in the ability of the university to sustain its reputation. In this equation reputation equals brand equity.

When you buy into a university you ultimately buy into a brand for a lifetime. While some of us will undertake further study, for the majority of students that one time investment in an undergraduate degree will live with us for the rest of our lives. Take, for example, Harvard graduates still wearing a Harvard sweatshirt years after they’ve finished their studies. Why is it that they still feel so connected to that brand? And more interestingly, why is it that other universities fail to reach this level of connection with their consumers? This isn’t just about students and individuals. It is also about commercial interests. For example, take the strong reputational connection between Stanford University and Silicon Valley. What is it that makes a university brand have reputational value 20 years on?

I believe that the critical brand factors in building and maintaining reputation can be broken down into three sections – legacy planning, holistic thinking and credibility.

Legacy planning in a brand context is long-term strategic brand planning that acknowledges the phases and transitions of the organisation and the brand, and looks for the core principles that will sustain for the long-term. This is not about brand for the next five years, but about branding for the next 30 years. The alignment of brand and long-term business strategy is critical.

For modern universities who have diversified offerings, partnerships with industry and commercial interests in research and development, there needs to be an awareness that all of these activities reflect back upon the core university brand. These areas of activity have the potential to be highly influential in adding credibility to the university brand, but if they are not aligned with the overall brand and strategic positioning of the university as a whole, they carry the risk of diluting the message and confusing the consumer. Therefore, universities must take a holistic view of all of their interests and not work on any one part of the puzzle without considering the wider relationships.

Credibility is about proof points. That is, what are the tangible reasons to believe in the reputation of the university? Building upon holistic thinking, the university needs proofs points across all of its interest from an academic point-of-view through to the commercial and research contexts as appropriate. Proof points should be relevant to a multitude of audiences to cross-pollinate the holistic university offer.

Getting the brand story right for a university is a commercial imperative because ultimately, reputation is what students and industry will invest in.