Museum and gallery wayfinding: tips for signage, maps and apps
Wayfinding is something that’s often taken for granted. At its best, you barely notice it, but at its worst, it becomes frustratingly obvious. This is especially true for museums and galleries, where visitor experience and visitor satisfaction ratings are often directly affected by the ability to navigate successfully around the space. For some, part of the appeal of visiting a gallery is in getting lost among the art and ephemera, but for others it can be intimidating and confusing.
On a recent trip to the Louvre in Paris, France, my initial enthusiasm quickly turned to tension as I joined thousands of tourists being herded through this vast gallery. I shamefully skipped masterpiece after masterpiece, following a somewhat clumsy signage system that directed me almost straight to the Mona Lisa. I was stressed and exhausted by the time I left. I exited with a feeling of missed opportunity – not just on a personal level, but knowing that from a creative perspective there were so many ways in which the gallery could have employed effective wayfinding to better engage visitors.
I’ve worked with a number of galleries and institutions to help them navigate the trials and tribulations of wayfinding. It can be an intricate challenge. Lots of galleries and museums are housed in historic buildings, which have been extended and adapted over the years, making them extremely complex spaces. Add to that limited budgets and countless rules and regulations, and it’s no wonder that wayfinding is notoriously difficult to get right.
So with all these added complications, how can cultural attractions create more engaging orientation systems?
Wayfinding does not equal signage
There’s a common misconception that wayfinding simply means signage; instead it should be a carefully considered combination of signage, maps, guides, front-of-house staff, apps, intuitive design and pre-acquired knowledge. Consider other ways of orientating your visitors. This could start pre-visit with downloadable maps and guides, which allow visitors to plan their trip, or an app that helps visitors navigate the space while also providing them with audio tours and additional content. Two of my favourite examples are Tate Britain’s downloadablemap and the National Portrait Gallery’s app.
There are many reasons people visit galleries, museums and heritage sites – and there’s no right or wrong way to explore them. By involving curatorial staff you can explore different ways in which visitors could experience the collections and exhibitions. There may be several key visitor routes that are plotted within the spaces and you could consider creating a set of trails tailored to different experiences. For example, when working with the Wellcome Collection earlier this year we created visitor trails: thematically composed maps that allowed visitors to navigate the space depending on their mood. Our aim was that with each visit, a new experience could be had.
Think dos, not don’ts
If your space becomes a never ending list of restrictions – no photographs, no food and drink, no touching, no talking and so on – visitors will never feel relaxed nor engaged. Rules are there for a reason, but rather than focus only on what people can’t do, try to point them in the direction of what they can do. The National Trust’s Nature’s Playground signs (“please do touch”) are a great example of subverting the rules. If you need to impose a restriction zone, for example around a fragile object, then simply explain why and direct visitors to where they can take a closer look at the detail (for example, online). People tend to be more relaxed and understanding when they feel informed.
Think around the rules
There are a number of health and safety and accessibility rules that must be considered when creating signage and wayfinding. The key is not to look at these regulations as restrictions. Instead, see them as opportunities within which to find creative ways to work. When working on a wayfinding project for a new National Trust visitor centre we were asked to create compulsory glass manifestations to ensure visitors were aware of the floor to ceiling glass that made up the space. Rather than take the usual route of putting the logo across the window, we used it as an opportunity to be creative and bring the estate to life through life-size illustrations across the glass.
Put the fun back in functional
Although functionality must always come first when creating a wayfinding system, it’s also a great opportunity to engage visitors with your brand and inject a sense of personality. Admittedly, fun may not always be appropriate, but consider ways in which wayfinding can be used to bring your brand to life. Thework that Cartlidge Levene did for the Guardian is a fine example of how a strong brand identity can bring your building to life.