Few individuals navigate their paths as adeptly as Prof. Craig Berger, Chair of the Spatial Experience Design, Graphic Design, Packaging Design, and Advertising and Digital Design departments. He not only excels in finding his own way. He also extends a helping hand to others seeking direction.
Recently, Prof. Berger spearheaded a team at the blue-chip Sign Research Foundation, producing “The Trail Sign Manual: A Planning Guide for Parks and Trails Signage.” This groundbreaking work delves into topics such as financing, community outreach, and innovative sign-design approaches.
Geared toward communities aiming to develop wayfinding systems as a cornerstone for urban and regional development, the book explores the entire process. It offers best practices and design inspirations.
In response to our questions, Prof. Berger shared his perspectives on wayfinding whether on roads, trails, or within structures like hospitals, museums, airports, and mass transit hubs. Clearly, there’s much to learn—and to teach—on this expansive topic.
Q: Wayfinding extends beyond designating route numbers and street names, even on roads. How has it evolved to incorporate points of interest and travel essentials like gasoline, rest stops, and food?
A: Vehicular wayfinding has evolved over the decades to support both infrastructure and community destinations. Accompanied by extensive regulations, starting with the federal government’s creation of the Manual For Uniform Traffic Control Devices, the system we see today is built upon specific requirements and best practices that ensure legibility for drivers. That is why across the US wayfinding on interstate and state roads is remarkably similar.
Q: What’s the balance between complexity and utility, say, to a driver on an Interstate highway?
A: Simplicity trumps everything in vehicular environments. The only way to get more complex is by having information that is easy to learn, such as standard icons for gas or lodging along with distance information. That works well in, for instance, signs for gas, certain restaurants, lodging, and convenience stores. But larger signs are needed for more unique destinations.
“Despite extensive exploration of best practices and testing, bad design persists for reasons such as unqualified designers, over-design, and a lack of integration.” – Prof. Craig Berger
Q: Wayfinding in complex situations, such as train stations, airports, museums and venue spaces, has become harder as uses of these spaces vary. Not everyone in an airport needs to catch a plane, for instance. There are guidelines, often not followed. Why? And can we fix this?
A: Despite extensive exploration of best practices and testing, bad design persists for reasons such as unqualified designers, over-design, and a lack of integration. Strong design firms and improved client understanding are making progress, but the field remains a work in progress. It’s frankly why I started writing books. Most books on wayfinding were technically useful but visually awful and promoted bad design. I combine research and organization with beautiful projects. People have accused me of writing glorified picture books and I fully agree with that assessment.
“English is a universal language for wayfinding. Most travelers know enough English words to get by.” – Prof. Craig Berger
Q: Abroad, signs often are in the vernacular language, plus English. In the USA, in non-English-speaking enclaves, often signage is in the area language only, but not English. Why?
A: English is a universal language for wayfinding. Most travelers know enough English words to get by. Japan and Korea often have English on signs, and even places in the Middle East do this. In the US though this is taken for granted to the point that in enclave communities there is an effort to be apart from that universality. This also often happens in places where cultures are afraid of losing their distinctiveness. English is sometimes feared as a facilitator of cultural destruction as opposed to a more universal language for wayfinding.
Q: My husband recently attended a conference in the arts district of Atlanta. He noted some signage for drivers but almost none for pedestrians. Even the entrance to the city’s largest art museum was hidden from view and unheralded by signs leading to it. He walked three quarters of the way around the block it is on to actually find a way in.
A: Almost all cities outside the East Coast developed after 1915 — the year planners began planning new spaces around cars — have little vocabulary for walkers and almost no codes requiring pedestrian accessibility. The more a city gets divorced from the pedestrian fabric, the more buildings are built around drivers. But now, cities like Charlotte and Atlanta use old rail rights of way and other byways as trails to bring the street life back. It is imperfect but often the only recourse for car-centric cities.
“Bad wayfinding at La Guardia before the renovation, was considered responsible for over 5,000 missed flights per year.” – Prof, Craig Berger
Q: In the Boston area, a young woman died in 2016 during a severe asthma attack because she could not get into the emergency room door that signs had guided her to – it was locked, late at night. There was an open entrance but she collapsed before she could find it. It resulted in Laura’s law. Other horror stories?
A: There are many, particularly in vehicular environments where people have to respond rapidly. On a Colorado highway a complete reliance on digital-display road signs created a huge accident when those signs broke down. Bad wayfinding at La Guardia, before the renovation, was considered responsible for over 5000 missed flights per year. Signs are fundamental infrastructure; Bad design can kill.
Q: Mobile technology (such as virtual reality goggles and cell phones) make almost unlimited wayfinding options possible. How do wayfinder experts decide when it is wise to depend on people having access to these technologies?
A: Wayfinding is about the experience of navigation using multiple mediums. Often, the goal is to reduce clutter in that experience. Digital support on one hand facilitates wayfinding in specific cases by a lot. Most people could not drive anywhere without GPS support. On the other hand, these tools are almost worthless in unique environments like airports or universities where at best they can serve as a support for environment cues.
Q: The visually and hearing impaired are more often able to work now, signage for them is inadequate. Only in the past few years have traffic lights added audible signals. These things cost money, but so does caring for folks who cannot work! Trouble is, the costs are paid out of different pockets – even if all the pockets belong to public agencies. How might wayfinders increase the chance of getting a project launched when costs and benefits accrue to different actors?
A: LAWS! But not all these mandates make sense. The Americans with Disabilities Act has been the law of the land since 1990 and it certainly has improved wayfinding in many ways but it also froze innovation and many of the rules work well for the visually impaired but not the blind.
Thus, mandates are the way to go but they should be considered a work in progress and should also be simple. Again, more complexity leads to less compliance. Combined with best practices, simple mandates can help drive improvements for the visually impaired. Again this is why we need more pretty books on subjects that combine design and legibility.
All images used with permission. Special credit to Gram Spina, Photography ’26. Spina graduated from Pennsylvania College of Technology with an associates in Vintage Automotive Restoration. Visit his website at: GramSpina.com and on IG: @hotrod_crazy. Photos not taken by Gram Spina were provided by Prof. Berger.