Wayfinding: Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow

Wayfinding: Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow.

Ext. Somewhere in Pacific ocean – Day

A Polynesian girl and a demigod sail on a traditional watercraft, talking.

The demigod knots a rope tightly to control the watercraft.

Teach me to sail.

Pbpbpbpb (like a motorboat sound)

My job is to deliver Maui across the great ocean.
I — should be sailing.

It’s called wayfinding princess. It’s not just sails and knots. It’s
seeing where you’re going – in your mind, knowing where you are, by knowing where you’ve been.

Here, the girl is Moana and the demigod is Maui from the 2016 computer-animated movie Moana, produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios. The story is set at least a thousand years ago on an imaginary island. This movie retold the story of Polynesians, who were masters of the art and science of wayfinding. The Polynesians, who were scattered on numerous islands, invented ‘wayfinding’ as a survival technique when in search of other islands. The Sun, the Moon, stars, the never-ending ocean, wind and the waves were all they had to find their way accurately. They saw a sign in everything they could see and feel around them. However, all this knowledge was never written down. It remained only an oral tradition.


In 1975, a group of people from a Polynesian island decided to revive this science of wayfinding by teaching the younger generations. They did so. Those descendants, who learned those traditional techniques, embarked on a voyage and after a long journey, reached another island. It was the one from which their ancestors have migrated.


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We have sailed a long way now and there’s no need to worry that we may drift away in the opposite direction. Today, we have the tools to orient ourselves and to help us head in the right direction and we get alerts about bad weather too. Be that as it may, there emerged a need to resurrect this art not because people are getting disoriented in the middle of an ocean but because they are disoriented among huge crowds and massive public places. We need invisible ushers who can silently tell us to turn left or right. We just need better wayfinding design systems.

Did you ever find yourself searching for a particular desk in a small bank, but walked right towards your airline’s check-in counter in a huge airport, and took your boarding pass in no time? Did you ever walk kilometres in a university to find a department you want to visit? Have you ever thought why you find toilets easily in a shopping mall or at the movies than in a museum? How do we, as humans, struggle to locate a destination in a city?

As the first wayfinding consultants in Hyderabad, we have developed a functional method based on the properties of ‘space’ & ‘emptiness’. If you navigate through our ‘Methods’ page, you find three words standing out – Clay pot, Hut and Wheel. The one element that goes unnoticed in these three things is the empty space around which they are built. So, isn’t architecture about this space we just talked about? It is.

In the past few decades, artists were approached to solve this problem arising in huge spaces. Environmental graphic design was the solution the artists came up with, under which wayfinding and environmental branding/branded environment fall. As curators of this art, we have a clear idea about where and how to start a wayfinding project. For this to bear fruit, we work closely with architects, designers and language experts.

We follow only two steps to design a wayfinding system. The first step is to dismantle the problem our associates face and invent a solution. The next step is to implement that solution. The first step is completely a creative and intuitive process in which graphic designers, artists, language experts and architects take part. The second step is what emulates our solution because it involves ground-level issues with hardware, geography and architecture. By nature, our method is multi-faceted for the fact that every city in India is a melting pot. Not one language, not one culture and not one preference can be drawn out from any city. Therefore, in the first step, we pack all the information in easily comprehensible design and language which represent particular signs. Of course, the brand personality is what picks and guides this design process.

We evaluate each wayfinding project on three fundamentals: Social behaviour, Psychology and Linguistics (Language and its job in an environment).

Like most architecture researchers, we also understand wayfinding as a decision making process. Why? Because man is primarily a social animal. To better understand this concept of social behaviour, imagine yourself in a museum, not just once but twice. Imagine yourself among a crowd and then imagine being all alone in the same museum. If the people around you take the stairs on the left to the next floor, you wouldn’t take the one on the right even when you need to take a right. If you are all alone in such a situation, you take decisions more intuitively depending on your cognitive abilities. So, when your navigation is goal-directed, i.e. when you know where you have to go, you are more intuitive. But if you are in a group of travellers, your decision is made up of fragments of a lot of individual decisions. The Polynesians were such travellers who took decisions collectively. Moreover, communication, which is both overt and covert, influences your decision in wayfinding. This is where signage and other wayfinding elements communicate with us.

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It is found that people take less than 10 seconds to search/find the way towards their destination. In a subway or a railway station or an airport or a university or even a city centre, anywhere, people take less time to decide which way to go. If their decision is wrong, then comes psychology into the picture. If we think we are lost, we immediately start imagining patterns, we look behind us and most probably walk back. In a 3-dimensional frame, we tend to figure out where we are. This is why it is mentioned in the beginning that the princess and demigod are in the middle of an ocean (Ext.) and the demigod defines wayfinding as ‘knowing’.

Language and design blend into the environment to pack discernible information in wayfinding systems. So we make sure how and where to employ language. Language can give out information for sure but when we are in a multilingual context it could make or break the system. For example, an Australian aboriginal language does not have a lexicon for spatial words such as left, right, front or back. They instead use cardinal directions, which are east, west, north and south. Of course, we might not be designing a system in that particular language, but it is important to address such cultural isolatedness. So, in how many languages do Indians prefer to find their ways? Definitely more than one.

In the film Moana, there is a critically acclaimed song ‘We know the way’. It depicts how they connect the dots with the stars, how the Sun helps them with directions and so on and so forth. It is a complete picture of their voyage. The song ends with:
‘Aue Aue, We are explorers reading every sign’.
This song is true to its core. We all read every sign on our way, don’t we? Isn’t it what makes wayfinding an art and a science at the same time.


Even when modern navigation devices were available then, the Polynesian people who embarked on that voyage in 1975 successfully reached the island to which they actually belong by using only their traditional wayfinding knowledge. To their surprise, 10,000 people gathered on the shore to receive their brethren who departed 800 years ago.