How You Know Where You're Going When You're in an Airport

“Ultimately,” airport-sign designer Jim Harding says, “if we do our job well, wayfinding enhances the customer experience without them knowing why or how.”

I am in a place filled with germs. Where people are often angry, tired, confused, and running late but forced to endure long lines and interminable walks. Where one is made to suffer indignities of invaded personal space and invasive bodily searches. And radiation. And overpriced food.

Yes, I am in an airport. Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, the world’s busiest. And I plan to spend the day here.

Why would anyone subject themselves to this environment if they’re not going anywhere?

I'm here to meet Jim Harding. Harding is in his early fifties, married with two daughters. He has thinning hair and a goatee. With an engaging warmth and a Nashville accent, he looks me in the eye and smiles broadly, then says, “No one grows up saying, ‘I want to be in wayfinding!’”

When is the last time you’ve been to an airport, checked in, made your way through security, walked to your gate, used the restroom, bought a sandwich, then boarded your flight without getting confused, disoriented, or lost? For frequent travelers, hopefully this is the norm.

Yet we don’t think, “What great signs they have here! I found everything so easily.”

If Harding performs his job perfectly you will never think of him or his work. Its very success enables us to have our minds engaged elsewhere. In fact, the only time we tend to be aware of his craft is when it’s done poorly—when we are frustrated because we can’t find what we are looking for. Wayfinding, Harding’s specialty, is the process of designing cues—from signage to lighting and color, even the architecture, anything at all—to help people navigate a built environment. I’m here to see the art and craft behind creating what is right in front of us but which we rarely notice.

* * *

We’re riding the “Plane Train,” officially an Automated People Mover (which looks like most airport monorails, though it’s technically not a monorail), which shuttles between the domestic and international terminals, making stops at the various concourses along the way. Harding, a principal at the design firm Gresham, Smith and Partners, leads their environmental graphic design group, whose prime role is creating wayfinding systems for large, complex environments, including the recently completed Maynard H. Jackson Jr. International Terminal here at ATL (as I’ll refer to the airport as a whole). I don’t understand why he wants us to begin our day on the Plane Train rather than in the terminal he worked on. But Harding has a plan.

As we ride the train toward the international terminal we study a map posted on the interior wall of our car. “Why are we on the train instead of in the terminal I worked on? It’s all about the Ripple Effect,” says Harding.

Wayfinding in one area of a large structure or environment always affects and is affected by the wayfinding in the rest of the complex. “It’s like a spiderweb,” he says. “You can’t touch one spot without making the whole web move.” For example, though the international terminal was the focus of Harding’s team’s work, every single one of the thousands of old maps of the airport throughout the complex, in the various concourses, the domestic terminal, the Plane Train (like the one we’re looking at), the parking garages, the website, et cetera, all had to be redone to include the newly built concourse and terminal.

When undertaking a major wayfinding project like the one at the Maynard Jackson Terminal, as the ripple effect on the maps shows, everything outside the core area must be tied in to the master plan. On the roads encircling Maynard Jackson the top of every street sign related to the terminal has a slightly curved edge, echoing the gentle undulating aesthetics of the terminal’s roofline. It’s a subtle, likely subconscious wayfinding cue, letting you know you are in the vicinity of the international terminal. Many of the interior signs share this shape as well. This distinguishes the area from the domestic terminal and concourses, where all the signs are a standard rectilinear shape. If you are ever in an airport or campus or hospital or other complex environment and suddenly something feels off, you sense you are going the wrong way, there’s a good chance it’s not just magic or some brilliant internal directional sense, but rather you may be responding to a subconscious cue like the change of shape from one sign system to another. “Signage isn’t only about consistency in terminology and typefaces,” says Harding, but also about placing the overall ecosystem in a particular frame. It establishes a sense of place.

We depart the train and arrive downstairs at the international terminal, as if we are travelers making a connecting flight. In the low-ceilinged claustrophobic space we’re met by a large horizontal sign hanging from the ceiling. On a pewter background is bold white text listing concourses, gates, and other information. It has the same clean look of airport and highway signage everywhere. And that’s not an accident.

As you walk around any large public environment—airports, museums, hospitals, cities—you’ll notice that nearly every sign is written in a sans serif typeface. (Serifs are small lines sticking off the end of letters, like little tails. Most books and some text-heavy websites, such as the one you are reading now, are in serif fonts because it’s believed that they make lengthy close text easier to read.) But with near-absolute universality public signs are in sans serif. 

Helvetica

The ubiquity of one sans serif font in particular, Helvetica, not just in signage but also corporate logos—employed by scores of global brands from BMW to American Apparel to 3M to, yes, airlines, including Lufthansa and the now-retired iconic American Airlines logotype—has been well documented and much discussed. (Amazingly, Helvetic Airways, a small airline out of Switzerland, the home of the typeface, does not use Helvetica for its logo. As the graphic designer Marc Levitt told me when I sent him an image of the airline’s logotype: “I can’t tell if it’s the biggest oversight in the history of design or if it’s a bold decision to not go with the obvious.”)

Presented by

David Zweig is a writer and lecturer based in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of the novel Swimming Inside the Sun.

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