This time of year – the first few weeks of school – I should really just factor an extra 15 minutes into my walk from the parking lot to my office. It’s a weakness, I admit it. I find lost students irresistible. Everything is possible, at the beginning of term – and impossible, too.

On September mornings, incoming graduate and undergraduate students practically vibrate between expectation and anxiety. Some peer at campus maps, turning them this way or that and gazing around hopefully. Others clutch notepaper with written instructions, or information they’ve downloaded. Still others migrate in clumps, exercising a characteristic my stepmother used to describe as “sometimes in error, but never in doubt.”

The truth is, I like it when the campus knows it’s a little lost.

In a few weeks, those same students will know their way around, at least well enough to begin to wear a regular route between buildings, according to the particulars of time and day. They’ll get to the point where it’s automatic, and move through these varied spaces with their attention focused elsewhere, inwardly, or on their companions, or on the electronic devices that locate them in an entirely different type of space. For now, though, they’re wayfinding.

Romedi Passini (1992) defines wayfinding as “the set of cognitive and behavioural abilities associated with purposefully reaching a desired physical destination.” He divides this activity into three tasks: deciding on a plan; executing the plan while simultaneously adjusting to various information you receive; and processing information as you travel in order to make those adjustments. Wayfinding – finding your way – means journeying to a location that is initially invisible, and which can only be found by carrying out the correct sequence of actions based on incoming sensory information (Ellard, 2010). At any given moment, wayfarers needs to know two things in order to progress: where they are going, and where they are. That’s the simple version, at least.

There are any number of ways that wayfinding can go wrong. For example:

  1. You don’t know where you’re going.
  2. You don’t know where you are.
  3. You think you know where you are, but you’re wrong.
  4. Your theory of the space is inaccurate.
  5. The space you’re navigating offers very few clues.

Wayfinding involves an interaction between what’s in our mind, and what’s in the surrounding environment. Our ideas about a place – our mental models of it – influence what we notice, and how we can parse where we are and where we are headed. However, our ideas about a place can be mistaken. We can lack sensitivity to sensory information. Landscapes can lack the kinds of markers that we understand or see, making them curiously uniform to our gaze. Environments may throw up barriers to our ability to interpret them: Cyrillic street signs, or pelting rain that obscures our view. Or we can’t – for linguistic, social, or psychological reasons – communicate with insiders who might guide us. Some spaces militate against us: we can see where we want to go, and where we are, but everything between those two locations denies the possibility or reasonableness of getting from here to there.

Wayfinding means both the act of choosing a path through a built environment, and the systematic combination of design elements which aid people as they make those decisions. Physical spaces offer architectural clues, and if well designed, use things like lighting, sight lines, and signage to help people orient themselves: to know where they are, and where they are headed. A good wayfinding system provides consistent, clear indicators for travelers, while a poor one makes it difficult for people to make decisions as they travel. Wayfinding, in either of its meanings, focuses on a person’s experience of the space, as the system of indicators has to be built based on an understanding of how people move through the space, where they’re coming from, where they’re headed, and what they understand about it.

If this all seems like making too large of an issue out of how hard it was to find Macleod Hall 1302 on your first day of class, you’re right. We all do find our way to classes, one way or another, even if we’re maybe late the first day. But institutional wayfinding isn’t just about classrooms and the cashier’s office, and it doesn’t actually dissipate after the first week. The spaces of a campus aren’t just physical, and their wayfinding systems are not always easily parsed.

Imagine, for a minute, the non-physical destinations people on campus are trying to reach. Thousands of students trying to get by, learn something, reach graduation – the gateway, they hope, to employment, or adulthood, or some kind of enlightenment. Early-career faculty trying to reach tenure, or a job at a “better” school, or some kind of life balance. Senior faculty members blazing new trails, trying to build bridges to younger students or colleagues, trying to find their way back to a passion they once felt for their disciplines, or a path to honourable retirement. Administrators trying to re-position their institutions, or burn a path back to their previous academic trajectories, or build a bulwark against what they perceive to be undesirable forces besieging the academy. A university is not just a physical space: it is simultaneously a social space, an intellectual space, an economic space, a curricular space, a psychological space. All of these spaces may occupy the same location, layered upon each other, informing each other.[1] To complicate matters, the physical space of the university might be the least salient of the ways one might define the institutional footprint. When you think about it, figuring out where a university is, and where it’s not, is actually a very complicated question.

The wayfinding students we began with are contending with all of these spaces simultaneously. And it’s not just that the space is complex, or that the attention paid to designing the space for wayfinding is uneven: many of its elements are dynamic and responsive. Imagine the enormously busy sidewalks of a major metropolis such as New York. Individuals in this environment negotiate all these kinds of space simultaneously, and responsively. Adam Greenfield (2013), writing about New York streets, argues that:

Public space is necessarily a space of negotiation — negotiation for limited spatial resources, with people who have different goals, ends, intentions and values than we ourselves happen to hold. As it happens, this is true even in something as simple as sharing the space of a sidewalk, when we use it to get between points A and B: we pay close attention to the ways in which other people indicate they intend to use the space, as they do our own, and all of us make constant, swift, subtle adjustments to our own speed and trajectory to keep things flowing. It’s a process that sociologist Lyn Lofland calls “cooperative motility,” and the carrying capacity of our pedestrian mobility infrastructure turns out to be entirely dependent on it.

Cooperative motility is a fine description of the state of individuals in a university, responding and reacting to others in a space where resources, like access to professors, grades, or job security, are limited in a variety of ways. These spaces can be navigated more easily using “cheats”, which are known by some people, but not by others, creating inequities in how likely it is that people can reach their destinations. Knowing all this, how do we better find our way, and help others to find theirs? What’s critical here is that wayfinding requires us to understand the space as those moving through it understand it, with a clear sense of where they have come from, and where they are trying to go.


Ellard, C. (2010) Where Am I? Why We Can Find Our Way To The Moon But Get Lost In The Mall. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

Passini, R. (1992)  Wayfinding in Architecture. John Wiley & Sons.

[1] Yes, it’s true. I haven’t actually defined what I mean by space. I will, but not today. I’m reading Lefebvre as fast as I can….

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