Monday, March 5, 2012

Vigilante Wayfinding

A few weeks ago, Atlantic Cities published a summary on the art of designing wayfinding for urban settings.  For those to whom the term might be new, “wayfinding” describes how visitors are directed around a town, by car or by foot.  To the extent that a new urbanist community attracts visitors and needs the revenues from visitors to succeed, wayfinding can be an important ingredient of new urbanism.

It was a well-researched and nicely presented article.  The writer explained that a good wayfinding system is fundamentally different that mounting maps on poles.  It is understanding the nature of a place and then defining the tools, of which mounted maps can be one, that will allow visitors to find their way around, while still leaving the possibility of serendipitous discoveries enroute.

As a result of the article, Atlantic Cities learned of an underground effort in Raleigh, North Carolina to supplement the official wayfinding system.  A local graduate student had decided that the official signs failed to adequately capture the delights that Raleigh offered to visitors, especially the pedestrians.  He printed signs that enhanced the official system, providing directions and walking times to local landmarks that he considered worthy of note.  Under the cover of darkness, he and his co-conspirators mounted the signs through the downtown area.

The City of Raleigh couldn’t countenance vigilante signage and voted to remove the signs.  However, no fines were assessed and the signs were returned to the instigators as keepsakes.  Also, there were hints that the City might be willing to integrate some of the ideas into the official wayfinding system.

The escapade got me thinking about wayfinding.  There is a saying that one doesn’t truly understand one’s own language until one learns another language.  There may be something similar in wayfinding.  One can learn one’s own way around town, but seeing how the city, or local vigilantes, might present the downtown to visitors could add insight and depth to one’s own knowledge.

My interested piqued, I’ll soon travel to various North Bay cities to assess their downtown wayfinding.  I’ll report back with my insights, including any perceived need for vigilantism.

And if anyone has thoughts about current North Bay wayfinding systems, please share.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. Hey now, the city had to take them down! The media attention and questions about their legality legally constituted a "complaint", forcing the city to remove the signs. But, the director planning, whose offices are directly across from one of the signs, really likes them.

    They'll be back, never you fear.

    I think some biking signs as well as wayfinding signs would be extremely useful. As well, Transit Information Displays at the transit hubs in each city could give valuable information on how to get around, like what MTC created in the more urban parts of the region.

    1. Your point is well-taken. Raleigh was virtually forced into removing the signs by the press coverage. But it doesn't take much reading between the lines to see that the City staff didn't mind either the attention or the creative input.

      I haven't yet field-checked my hypothesis, but I believe that most wayfinding is directed at cars. I think that wayfinding targeted toward bicyclists and pedestrians is a gap waiting to be filled.

      Thanks for the comment.