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AIRPORT DESIGN Last modified on November 30, 2015

Getting graphics

Taking an holistic approach to wayfinding can create positive passenger experiences and boost passenger spending at airports, writes GS&P’s Jim Harding.

It’s no secret that many of the world’s airports face ever-increasing pressure to make more revenue, so the need to create positive passenger experiences continues to grow in importance. 

After all, a satisfied customer is more likely to return to the airport than a dissatisfied one and as we all know happy travellers open up their wallets for concessions and other purchases during their visit. 

And while operations and service are certainly integral to the formula for success, environmental graphic design is a lesser-discussed component that has tremendous potential to influence the customer experience. 

Environmental graphic design (EGD) supports the built environment most commonly through branding and wayfinding. 

It is more than just signs; it requires a holistic approach based on reinforcing a brand and communicating information that helps people make the best decisions to reach their destination. 

Wayfinding can be very subjective (there are lots of opinions). Therefore to ensure the best possible outcome, GS&P has developed an objective process where research is the key.

Research, we find, helps us identify where problems lie for passengers so that we can make refinements based on reliable data. 

Airports such as Changi in Singapore, which is consistently ranked among the best airports in the world for customer service, are committed to excellence through a research-based approach to improvements. 

GS&P recently performed a review and analysis of Changi’s wayfinding system, with a goal of identifying new ways to further enhance their airport experience. Using proven research methods, our team analysed opportunities for facility-wide improvements.

Research is also the foundation of the ‘3Vs’ of wayfinding – visual, verbal and virtual – which are the most basic elements of communicating information. 

Each of these types of communication has its own unique value, and they combine to create a fully functioning, comprehensive system. As an EGD practitioner, it’s part of my job to define what success looks like, and these are some of the fundamentals my team applies to our process:


Visual wayfinding

The most basic and straightforward navigational tool, encompasses all static signage. It’s the workhorse of the wayfinding world; it does the heavy lifting. 

And it’s also the biggest struggle for many airports, which have grown and added facilities over time, ending up with a disjointed system that lacks clarity and cohesion. 

The success of visual wayfinding is tied strongly to intuitive architecture. Research has shown time and time again that good wayfinding begins with thoughtful architectural design; spaces that people can ‘read’, understanding where they are, where to go and how to get there. 

Visual wayfinding is also the most effective method of presenting and reinforcing a client’s brand with clear and cohesive visual elements. 

Additionally, clear signage instills navigational confidence in passengers, equalling less stress and more time for shopping and dining, which affects both passenger satisfaction and airport revenue. 

Navigational confusion means, forget the bagel, coffee and newspaper; I’m lost and I don’t want to miss my flight! Good wayfinding creates a win/win situation for both passengers and airports.


Verbal wayfinding

Verbal wayfinding is another piece of the puzzle. For users who need further instruction on how to reach their destination or those who may not speak the language displayed on signage, an information desk offering verbal assistance is important.

Almost every airport has one, of course, but not all are easy to find! A good example of one we like can be found in the GS&P-designed main terminal at Tampa International Airport. 

While visual wayfinding can be successful for around 90% of users, the verbal component is key in assisting the remaining 10%, which may not sound like much, but at an airport with 10 million passengers this translates into about a million passengers per year. 

These kinds of numbers underscore the importance of having desk attendants that are able to present information in an educated and objective manner that is consistent with all other forms of information, so users are less likely to become confused when listening to directions. 

And it’s helpful to make these resources available on both the airside and landside at multiple touchpoints.


Virtual wayfinding

Virtual wayfinding encompasses dynamic, non-static navigational tools. In essence, digital tools: computerised displays with directional information, interactive directories with foreign language assistance, ‘smart garage’ signage with real-time parking-spot counts, and plenty of other technology. 

Virtual wayfinding offerings are constantly improving and they will continue to be a crucial component of a comprehensive wayfinding system into the future. 

And the capabilities of technology can be stretched even farther: at Philadelphia International Airport, for example, the information gathered during GS&P’s initial sign inventory was entered into a geographic information systems (GIS) database that was used to help develop a PHL wayfinding app. 

Apps and other digital pre-trip planning technology are becoming increasingly popular with passengers. In fact, prior to a recent connecting flight into Heathrow Airport in London, I was able to enter my flight information on their website and then immediately learn the time it would take for me to transfer from my arrival gate to my departure gate.

Had I not known this information before my trip and been able to prepare, I would have been really stressed about missing my connecting flight when I realised how far apart my gates were.


Processing information

Each of the 3Vs provide and reinforce the same information; it’s just presented and accessed in different ways since people process information differently. 

Where visual signage might be insufficient for one user, verbal wayfinding can fill in the gaps; where virtual information isn’t enough for another user, architectural cues guide him; and so forth. 

By communicating with each other and ensuring there are no contradictions or missing puzzle pieces, the various types of wayfinding are able to consistently present information across all three platforms. 

Happy, loyal customers are typically the result when the 3Vs are applied effectively throughout an airport. The 3Cs of consistency, continuity and connectivity support the 3Vs and are essential so that there are no information gaps where people lose their direction or their sense of place, beginning with the very first impression and lasting until the airplane lifts off. 


Remember roadways

Airport roadways can often be an overlooked component of wayfinding success. During a drive to an unfamiliar airport, many people aren’t even sure how to get there, so they need reassurance that they’re on the correct route. 

Along the roads approaching the Pensacola International Airport (PNS) campus, GS&P created eye-catching modern signs that immediately instill the PNS brand and also give passengers confidence that they have not missed their turn, which had previously been a problem. 

Moving past airport entrances and travelling along airport roadway systems, wayfinding can often become complex and many people are unsure how to find their specific terminal. 

Most airports are ‘legacy carrier airports’ that were built long ago but have since added new terminals, parking facilities, roadways and access points to support increased passenger numbers. 

Some travellers are headed to ‘Arrivals’, some to ‘Departures’, some to long-term or short-term self-parking, some to rental car facilities or transit stations. The paths to reach each of these destinations can be non-intuitive (left-handed exits in the US are one example) and, unlike interstate driving, travellers only have a few seconds to make necessary decisions while navigating their route. 

To address the all-important safety factor and help alleviate this confusion, GS&P designed a roadway wayfinding solution based on proven federal highway standards for Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) which is large, easy-to-read and free of visual distractions. 

Its signs are also far enough apart that drivers can digest the information before encountering the next sign.


Last but not least

Airports also need to consider three very important, but often-overlooked groups of customers – the unfamiliar traveller (who has never or rarely travelled through a particular airport), older adults or persons with disabilities and international passengers (who often struggle to understand local signage). 

It is worth noting that American adults with disabilities alone spend $17.3 billion annually on travel and leisure, according to a recently released study conducted by the Chicago-based Open Doors Organization.

Our work begins with listening to and understanding the needs of airport customers, then thinking through existing conditions, identifying obstacles and establishing objectives before arriving at the solution.

In summary, applying a holistic approach enables airports to reach the greatest percentage of their customer base, which means that more users can quickly and easily find their destination and understand your airport’s brand. 

The result is a positive experience and happier passengers, repeat business, more shopping and dining expenditures, and improved financial performance by the airport. 

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