A while ago there was a series of very good articles on Slate by Julia Turner about signage, and a discipline known as “wayfinding”, which wikipedia defines thus:

Wayfinding encompasses all of the ways in which people and animals orient themselves in physical space and navigate from place to place.

That might sound a bit abstract, but it basically boils down to how we use design (layout, colour-schemes, signage and so on) to help people navigate around places. Originally, it was more about interior navigation, but it’s now being used outdoors in urban areas – which chiefly amounts to a comprehensive network of well-designed (i.e. evidence based) map boards, designed according to how people actually navigate:

Traditionally, maps on these sorts of signs offered a bird’s-eye view of the area in question, and were oriented with north at the top. Over the years, though, designers have learned that people tend to do better with maps that detail what the facades of buildings look like—a helpful feature for users who have trouble extrapolating from a 2-D map to the 3-D world around them… users consistently preferred a “heads-up” orientation that puts whatever the user is facing at the top.

I had been planning on writing a piece about wayfinding, linking to those articles, and including pictures of the wayfinding scheme that’s recently been installed in Brighton. But looking through my blog’s history, it appears that I never got beyond planning.

Anyhow, if you haven’t read the articles, I’d recommend having a read of them at some point. They’re in multiple parts (it was a six day series), and it’s really very, very good:

Part I: The Secret Language of Signs

Part II: Lost in Penn Station

Part III: Legible London

Part IV: Do You Draw Good Maps?

Part V: The War Over Exit Signs

Part VI: Will GPS Kill The Sign?

But that’s not the purpose of this post. What’s got me typing here is that I noticed something about the new London Cycle Hire scheme that no-one else seems to have pointed out, which is that it has a wayfinding system built into it.

The system involves several hundred docking stations (around 400 at launch) spread across the central area. The TFL map shows how dense they are. And the cool thing is that everyone appears to have a wayfinding-style map on two of the sides of the pillar that contains the touch-screen ordering system. The map is oriented from that location, in the direction you’ll be facing when you look at it. (i.e. It’s not just multiple copies of the same map with “you are here” markers; if there are 400 docking stations then there will be 800 different maps.)

So if you’re ever lost in central London, you now just have to look around for the Cycle Hire sign, and you know that you’ll have a well-designed map (with index) of a standardised layout, to help you find your way.

Which I think is a nice little bonus. There have been some trial wayfinding schemes in London so far, one of which was described in the Slate article. But it might have been difficult to justify putting a wayfinding scheme across 400 sites were it not paired up with the cycle hire scheme.

The picture of the docking station pillar is a bit small, so I’ve included two pictures below of some signs in the Brighton scheme. These are actually from a single sign, one view of each side. The reason the maps are different is because the one looking north has south at the top and shows what you’ll find in that direction while the one looking north has north at the top, and shows what you’ll find in that direction. (Below each map is an index, which my photos largely clip).

It will be interesting to see if pedestrians start to use the docking stations for navigation. I hope they do.