Wayfinding and Audience

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been doing some traveling and, among other things, collecting information for this blog. It’ll probably take me months to go through all the photos and notes I’ve taken, but one of the funnest things I observed on my recent trip was various forms of wayfinding. For example, in Barcelona’s oldest neighborhood, I found these three signs:

Three signs in Barcelona’s medieval neighborhood.

The top piece in that picture is a modern restoration of a Hebrew sign that used to be in the neighborhood when it was occupied by medieval Jews. Christians later forced the Jews out (and killed them), and the middle sign comes from the neighborhood’s later, Christian period. The final sign on the bottom is obviously recent.

It’s fun just to see the historic evolution of wayfinding in a very old place, but these signs also suggest the importance of audience: each successive population used language ā€” as well as other factors like style, placement, materials, etc. ā€” to target a specific group. The Jewish and Christian signs are particularly illuminative; what better way to show that you don’t want a group of people around than to rip out their signs and replace them with something in a new language. (It should go without saying that this is also very sad and is a poor reflection on the so-called Christians that once lived in Barcelona.)

With multiple languages and an emphasis on historical information, the new sign on the bottom also reveals how much tourism and multiculturalism is a part of Barcelona’s economy today. In other words, even if I knew nothing about the city and just magically appeared in front of these signs, I could glean a lot of information about community values and wealth by looking at this wall.

The same could almost certainly be said of all wayfinding, including any examples in Provo. In this context, it’s worth considering who might be the target audience for future wayfinding in Provo. What languages will they speak? What destinations will they be searching for? What values will the signs convey?

Another city I visited, Segovia, asked these same questions and decided to cast a wide net:

Signs in Segovia, Spain.

With graphics and three different languages, these signs are obviously for visitors to the city, rather than locals. The city also must have put some serious consideration and research into which languages to include.

All of this is to say that like all texts and graphical information, street signs and wayfinding target specific audiences. The greater awareness designers have of those audiences, the more effective the signs will be.

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