Neighbourhood wayfinding kiosks: getting to the essence of a street?
One recent evening, strolling down Main Street, I came across one of the wayfinding kiosks that had been installed on the street for the Olympics.
And here’s a picture of the backside from a wayfinding kiosk at another location, if you’re curious what’s on the back…
We first mentioned these kiosks last when they first went up just prior to the Games – and remarked on the fact that they were long-overdue in the City. And yes, despite what follows, we’re still glad they’re here.
But upon scrutinizing what’s actually displayed, I found myself grimacing a little. The middle panel with the copious amounts of text under the headline “Mount Pleasant” is a listing of all the businesses in the area, sorted by category (such as “Restaurants”), along with their address and phone number. The aesthetic and presentation of the directory is clearly reminiscent of that used on signs in malls.
I sent and commented on the above photo to Twitter, and received a couple of replies questioning my discontent:
@counti8 Better than a mall, but not as easy for the mall-habituated to understand — hence the wayfinding infrastructure?
Both valid points, certainly, which encouraged me to revisit why the retail-heavy content felt inappropriate and out of place for me. To expand upon my initial ideas, which I tweeted to Seth from Edmonton, I believe it is because my feeling about neighbourhoods is profoundly different than the one I have for malls.
Whether it’s Main Street or Hunt’s Point in The Bronx, neighbourhoods are, first and foremost, venues of daily life. Their features reflect the sum total of life having unfolded, and continuing to unfold, over time and space. Buildings get old, are vacated, renovated, rejuvenated, modified and, sadly for this and other older districts, burned down; new buildings find their legs in the spaces between older ones. Malls are in many ways the antithesis of this; they are ahistorical in their presentation, focused on birthing the buying moment, unless nostalgia is part of the sell. They reflect the desire to produce a highly controlled and curated environment, which keeps at bay the difficulties associated with weather, multiple modes of traffic, the ravages of time and the challenge of competing interests in limited spaces. They seldom seem to age well, propped up by the building equivalents of Botox.
Wayfinding is undoubtedly an important contribution to the pedestrian experience, for it guides us by helping us form expectations of said experience. We might say a city or neighbourhood is “legible” or” understandable” through the way it is laid out, which helps someone traveling on foot to understand where you are and where you want to go. Malls are laid out and designed with anchor tenants (such as department stores or supermarkets) at the ends of its corridors and certain arrangements to maximize retail frontage values, as well as to expose foot traffic as much as possible to all the stores in between. The mall directory helps you navigate what is typically a non-linear layout. They make sense when you consider that distinguishing landmarks might be restricted to store signage features, or that layout of a mall happens over multiple floors, which can only be accessed by elevators and escalators located in specific spots. Its legibility is certainly challenging to a first-time or infrequent visitor.
Main Street is comparably simpler and easier to understand — it’s a linear corridor in a grid with evenly spaced-out regular intersections. For this reason, the store-directory-as-wayfinding-kiosk almost seems like a bit of overkill. Designed in this fashion, it strikes me that the sign tries hard but ultimately missed the mark; the authors haven’t created a kiosk that gives pride of place to the sort of stuff that would help a visitor discover the essence of the place… just a sector-specific portion of it. Getting to the essence, i think, is the sort of thing that would come with asking a broader question like: what is interesting about this neighbourhood? Not: where can I buy shoes? While retail information has it’s use, a good info post would ideally give you access to details on a range of items: local pointsof interest, bathrooms, community policing, pay phones, maybe a 24 hour eatery… and the sorts of other features that make the neighbourhood different from a trip to Pacific Centre.
Now, to be fair, the kiosk does retain perhaps the most important elements from its use as Olympic wayfinding, such as important transit routes and connections, and it does feature a smaller section on ‘Neighbourhood Destinations’ (out of frame further down on the second picture above). In the Main Street case, it lists landmarks and notable spots like Queen Elizabeth Park and Heritage Hall.
Fundamentally, there is a line to walk between promoting the businesses to make the street and the neighbourhood welcoming and accessible, and providing actual utility to newcomers through the features of the sign. Given that the local Business Improvement Association sponsors the sign, I understand the push. They’re fulfilling their mandate by promoting the shops and businesses along this corridor, supporting the local economy and so forth. All good things. So the issue to me is more about balance in content. Personally, I think show-casing a complete range of community amenities would probably support the local economy more in the long run. (And in the grand scheme of things, this sign is still a step-down in my mind, from the corporate logos gracing the wayfinding signage in the Olympic Village).
No doubt, translating this notion of balance into the design and presentation of the information, while remaining equitable to all businesses, is a formidable challenge. The presence of these information kiosks is good, but the content elements shows signs of needing a bit of a re-think.