June 2018

Image: © Nikada/istockphoto.com

What airport wayfinding can teach TC practitioners

If you travel as much as I do, you probably spend many hours every year in airports. Some of that time is needed for ticketing, check-in, getting through security, and finding the correct gate. But often, you are still left with a long, boring waiting time.

Perhaps you read, browse the many shops, try to do some work on your laptop, watch a video, or visit a lounge. I find it difficult to concentrate and am constantly looking for distractions to help me pass the time. And while some airports are better than others, they are still places that most of us endure rather than enjoy.

The solution? Spontaneous usability testing! While people-watching on a recent trip, I started to pay attention to how people interact with airport signage. Have you ever noticed that airports offer an excellent microcosm for studying usability? You may think that airport signage is not applicable to TC practice, but it is actually closely related. Consider:

  • In TC, we talk about signposting, which is about graphic and text elements that allow users to find and identify information (for example, table of contents, index, cross-references, links, headings, icons, etc.).
  • In airports, signage relates to wayfinding [1], which is about the signs that help travelers navigate through the airport (for example, signs for terminals and gates, signs for services and facilities, instructional signs about what is allowed or forbidden, etc.).

Further, think about the special challenges that an airport faces. What other large facility is guaranteed to have users…

  • from different countries and cultures?
  • speaking (and reading) different languages?
  • of different ages, physical capabilities, and experience levels?

The science of wayfinding

Wayfinding has developed into a specialist field. These signs are treated very seriously; there are many standards that apply to signs, recommending best practices for things such as typeface, amount of information, approved icons, and more. Clearly, good signage means that people will be able to move through a complex structure and find their way while avoiding hazards (for example, entering the wrong way, going through no-return doors, controlled zones, wet floors, and more).

This is critically important. Yet consider all the limitations of airport signage:

  • Size: There are a lot of signs competing for limited space. Signs have to be large enough to be seen from a distance without creating visual noise for the overwhelmed traveler.
  • Content load: There cannot be too much information in a single sign, so the designers have to make careful choices about what information is critical, and how to split different bits of information along the path.
  • Language cues: When listing info in two or more languages, how are the two differentiated?
  • 3D representation on a 2D surface: Arrows are a constant challenge; a sign on the wall with a left or right arrow is fairly clear, but what about signs hung from the ceiling? What do the up and down arrows mean? How many times have you been confused?

As technical communicators, most of us are familiar with concepts of choosing the right typefaces, the right size, and avoiding visual noise or content overload. But there are some valuable lessons that we can learn from the last two issues: language cues and 2D representations.

Language cues

Some airports use multiple languages in the same typeface, stacked or separated by a slash (see Image 1).

Image 1: Multiple languages stacked using the same typeface…
Design Work Plan


This is always a challenge for a stressed, sleep-deprived brain. What works much better is when different languages are presented in different colors or typefaces (see Image 2).

Image 2: … and using different typefaces.
Source: Design Work Plan


For our TC content, think about using a strong and consistent visual cue in the layout and design that will help users focus on the correct information for their user type. (After all, presenting content in two languages is exactly that – having different content for two different audiences.)

2D representation

It is easy to indicate "turn left" or "turn right" with a sign on the wall. But how do you indicate "straight ahead"? And what about signs suspended from the ceiling? Up and down arrows may also mean "straight ahead" and "back" rather than "up" and "down"; how can you communicate what is basically 3D orientation within the confines of 2D representation?

This is not as easy to solve as the language (audience) cues. In fact, even as a savvy traveler, I find myself confused by some arrows (See Image 3).

Image 3: Which way to the baggage reclaim?
Design Work Plan

In TC content, our biggest challenge comes when documenting physical devices and selecting graphics that give users a sense of perspective and orientation within the 2D representation. Always make sure that you perform usability testing on any product diagrams used in procedures.


So the next time you find yourself bored at an airport, take a good look at the signage. Think about how you can use similar concepts of wayfinding to make your documentation more universally understandable!



[1] Symonds, P., "Wayfinding Signage Considerations in International Airports", Interdisciplinary Journal of Signage and Wayfinding; Volume 1; Issue 2