I work at the Hong Kong Polytechnic Unviersity. Every time we have visitors, the first thing they say is invariably: ‘I got lost! It’s really hard to find’. This blogpost investigates why.
One of the most distinctive architectural characteristics of the PolyU campus is the red brick façades (they are in fact red tiles, a reference to ‘red brick universities’ in Britain). The cylindrical ‘cores’ are another prominent feature. The cylinders are service cores that house lifts, staircases, toilets and mechanical rooms. They are nodes that link up rectangular blocks containing teaching and administrative facilities. One cylinder may be connected with one to four buildings, forming a network. So without getting onto the ground, one could meander through the internal corridors to get from one end of the campus to another. There are also several standalone buildings that are not connected to this network, more notably the ones that were built in recent years.
The wayfinding system on the PolyU campus is based on this architectural concept. The ‘official’ terminology according to the campus maps issued by the Facilities Management Office:
Core: the cylindrical service cores, denoted by letters of the English alphabet, for example ‘core D’.
Wing: the rectangular blocks, denoted by the letters of the cores at the two ends of the block for example ‘wing DE’. Wings are also labelled with names of donors, such as ‘Lui Chi Woo Building’.
Block: standalone buildings, denoted by single letters, except the three that are denoted by double letters (VA, VS and MN). Blocks are also labelled with names of donors. Li Ka Shing Builing, the administrative heart of the University, is often called by name but not ‘M block’. The new School of Design building due to open at the end of this month, I imagine will be more popularly called ‘Innovation Tower’ rather than ‘block V’.
In reality, most staff and students at PolyU tend to call everything ‘core’ and are oblivious to the terms ‘wing’ and ‘block’.
Room numbers are prefixed by the wing or block letter(s), then floor number, then room number. Room DE307 means wing DE, 3rd floor, room 07. Ground floors are labelled with the letter ‘G’, for example GHG08, which could be confused with the core and wing letters.
As you can see, the naming and numbering conventions are rather convoluted. The fact is, even if you do learn the principles, it would still not help you a great deal to find your way around. For many visitors to any university, they are primarily looking for units, people and activities. The building names, room numbers and the labelling principles are not inherently meaningful to the users; they are only a means to an end. The wayfinding system would be more effective if it reflects how people and activities are organised rather than forcing people to adopt an essentially meaningless but seemingly highly logical system.
Inference systems such as numbers and letters are good for destinations that form an orderly sequence, such as departure gates at an airport terminal. Unfortunately the cores at PolyU are not organised in a linear sequence in a straight line; they are dispersed in a network-like configuration which is not sequential. On top of that, the cores are not actual destinations but intermediate locations that infer the location of final destinations, which adds to the user’s cognitive load. While you are wondering around the maze of corridors inside the buildings, everywhere looks more or less the same. The only things you can rely upon are the letters and numbers to infer your current location.
The staff and students of PolyU seem to only have a partial understanding of the campus. From my observations, they tend to be only familiar with the locations and routes of several locations that they visit a lot, but only have a very vague concept of the organisation of the campus as a whole. The same is true for visitors. Wayfinding designers not only have to show users the routes they should take, but also form a clear ‘mental map’ in their minds, so that they can understand how different parts of an environment relate to each other as a whole.
While the term ‘way finding’ refers to the human behaviour of finding the way, Melborne-based Danish designer–scholar Per Mollerup coined the term ‘wayshowing’ to denote the tools that designers devise to help people find their way, such as maps and signs. Effective wayshowing design is not simply about putting as many signs in as many places as possible. It begins by understanding the needs of different types of users, analysing their flow of finding their destinations and a thorough audit of the site and architecture. Only then could a solid wayfinding system be devised and graphic design decisions be made.
The Information Design Lab is currently designing the wayshowing system for the new Innovation Tower, the future home of the School of Design at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. We plan to use this building as a pilot scheme and extend it to the rest of the campus. Watch this space for more on the project’s development.