Great wayfinding design helps people move through spaces. When designed effectively it can help assist travellers through stressful situations, reduce confusion, and increase satisfaction in the overall airport experience. By designing intuitive spaces and helping travellers calmly move through them, airport operators and security professionals can focus on more pressing issues. Paul McConnell and Mandana Kazem provide some background to wayfinding, its role in an airport, the technological and social changes that are impacting how people move through spaces, and what this means for airport security.

Wayfinding is central to how we experience our airports. It helps people get to their ultimate travel destination through a series of communications and actions that start when planning a trip and build to a peak in the terminal. A wayfinding system provides guidance during standard operating scenarios but should also assist in other situations such as periods of heighted threat or evacuation. It is these disruptions that can truly ‘stress-test’ an airport’s design and operation. Digital, infrastructure and operational design, along with wayfinding strategies become crucial to ensure safety. When effective, wayfinding can help reduce anxiety and shape a calm environment for airport operational teams to do their jobs. This is particularly relevant around the passenger screening checkpoint, a notoriously stressful process in the passenger journey. However, the craft of wayfinding design or environmental design for airports is changing. In this article, we will provide an overview of wayfinding, trends that are impacting airports, and design considerations to help improve the airport experience for all.

Bad design can be easily identified in airports. It can take the form of illegible or poorly positioned directional signage, unclear or poorly timed instructions, or a display that lacks relevant information. These are all communication failures, disruptive moments that force a person to do more ‘work’ in searching for answers to figure out their next step. They add time and frustration to a journey, impacting satisfaction, brand perception, and safety. This has the potential to slow down thousands of individuals and the system as a whole. We have all, at some point in our travelling lives, experienced confusion on entering a passenger screening checkpoint due to the lack of, conflicting or overwhelming amount of instructions (or wayfinding direction).

Great design, on the other hand, anticipates and answers visitors’ questions, and builds confidence in the various layers of infrastructure systems. This is particularly relevant when passengers experience slightly different processes between visits to the same airport or between airports. For example, laptops out of bags at one airport but they stay in the bag at others. From operations to signage, great design adds to a system that functions efficiently. Helping people get to their destination safely and comfortably, with more time to relax, look around, and prepare for the real trip.

What is Wayfinding?

Wayfinding is how people find their way to a destination and navigate a physical environment. It is a problem-solving process. The basic goal is to find one’s way from one location to another. The process of figuring this out includes seeking information, searching for an appropriate route and moving along that route.

This process is iterative, with people repeating these steps until they reach their destination. Good wayfinding (or wayshowing) allows passengers to efficiently move through the space. The key however, is providing just enough information. Once in a space, people can choose from multiple wayfinding strategies. The strategy or combination of strategies chosen in a specific situation depends on aspects such as an individual’s attention or prior knowledge. These strategies include :

  • Track Following — Following signs, lines, or other paths (such as presenting at numbered screening checkpoint divestment stations)
  • Route Following — Following a plan
  • Educated Seeking — Using prior experience
  • Inference — Concluding from designations such as station names or icons, such as gate numbers

This is no more evident than at the passenger screening checkpoint. Whilst most would agree that if we could redesign the screening checkpoint from scratch today it would look very different, we have seen significant improvement in passengers’ ability to self-navigate through what is a confusing process thanks to wayfinding mechanisms/products.

Essentially the screening checkpoint should be designed to get passengers and their belongings from landside into a sterile area without any prohibited items being carried and with minimal stress. The differences between airports, and the nature of the process being intrinsically invasive, coupled with ‘separation’ of people from their valuables, invariably causes confusion and stress. The improvements we have seen, thanks to wayfinding products, include queue-time indicators to allow passengers to select which screening checkpoint to use after check-in; LAGs banks providing illustrations and zip-lock bags to prompt compliance with LAGs limitations; signage, videos and stickers inside trays illustrating how to compose a tray and divest items; lighting, numbering and colour coding at divestment stations; lighting design that highlights the intuitive pathway through the lane; floor demarcations to indicate a change in procedure, such as between the X-ray and ETD processes; and, placement of re-dressing facilities away from areas that should otherwise be ‘thoroughfares’.

Arup's Processing Pod negates the need for movement between processes and allows the application of user-based design to enable intuitive processing.
Arup’s Processing Pod negates the need for movement between processes and allows the application of user-based design to enable intuitive processing.

Considerations for Wayfinding

In recent decades, wayfinding and our expectations for great experiences in spaces has changed. Thanks to smart phones and real time traffic data, we are now used to getting options for point to point direction for any mode of transit. The line between services, technology, and finding our way has blurred. More importantly, people don’t differentiate between disciplines. They just demand that it makes sense. The following are some considerations when collaborating on new wayfinding solutions in spaces.

Consideration 1 –
Design for New Digital Behaviours
Our spaces have been designed with an assumption that our collective eyes would be looking up. Scanning a space. Looking for clues to help us advance our journey. In the past two decades, we have all developed a new behaviour, whereby we stare down at our personal devices. An air traveller is also encouraged to look down at their airline specific branded mobile applications; checking for gates numbers, boarding passes, or alerts. This is all very helpful, but do operators really know what physical world messages people are now missing?
Consideration 2 –
Design for Resilience
The spotlight has also been placed on the vulnerabilities of design, not only from the perspective of fire but also from security threats, and the events and triggers that can convert normal operations into emergency scenarios. It is these scenarios that can truly ‘stress-test’ an airport’s operations. Digital, infrastructure and operational design, alongside effective wayfinding strategies become crucial to ensure safe operations.
Consideration 3 –
Design for the Human
The flow of an individual through space and time is often modelled through ‘persona’ based journeys, effectively walking through an environment from the perspective of a user. For an airport, the user may be a passenger, operational or maintenance staff (including cleaners and retail staff), or an individual that performs some other function (such as emergency response personnel). A user may also include an individual for whom the airport provides a function, such as flight crew. Personas define the characteristics of the individual (e.g. older passengers with reduced mobility, VIPs, leisure travellers) and the walk-through of the journey attempts to understand (and predict) their needs and potential problems.
Such methods enable designers to guide the design of airport environments, systems and operations, and support the development of wayfinding strategies. They predict problematic decision-making points that may cause individuals to follow incorrect paths, that subsequently create further ‘traffic’ and detrimentally affect their experience. These methods can further model and support operational journeys – for example the passage and needs of staff. Architectural, digital, operational and signage wayfinding strategies can be optimised to support these decision-making points, and information needs can be understood to ensure the right information is presented at the right time to ensure smooth and error free movement.
The flow of groups of people is often understood through the use of pedestrian flow models, which predict passage and footfall of significant groups, again based on their significant characteristics (e.g. passenger wheelchair users). Flow modelling can predict problematic cross-flows and further bottlenecks that may cause congestion, and ultimately confusion and frustration. With this information wayfinding strategies can be developed to smooth and segregate flows and ensure that aspects such as differences in physical characteristics do not disadvantage any individual.
Critically, both techniques can be used to understand and support movement of people when operations fall outside of the norm – e.g. when an event creates an abnormally large influx of people, or when out-of-service lifts or grounded aircraft create swells of passengers in dwelling zones. Wayfinding strategies should have the capability to support abnormal and degraded operational scenarios as a key element of airport resilience.
Using simulation to model flows of people Source: Arup
Using simulation to model flows of people Source: Arup
Consideration 4 –
Design for other than normal operations
In 1996, a fire at Dusseldorf Airport caused the death of seventeen people. This is still considered one of the worst structural fires to have occurred in any commercial airport building. An investigation showed that a root cause for many deaths was attributable to signage that ultimately failed to direct people safely out of the building.
Emergency scenarios require specific consideration whereby infrastructure, systems and operations must switch to supporting emergency functions and operations – and critically support the needs of those attempting to evacuate (passengers and staff), the emergency services and the needs of those sustaining critical support functions. Within such scenarios operational functions change as staff implementing emergency procedures and control is shared with response agencies. Functional aspects of the infrastructure will change as required to maintain the safety of passengers and personnel and the integrity of the infrastructure; for example, altered management of lifts, inclusion of temporary barriers and use of alternative or ‘agile’ mustering points.
With the support of wayfinding designers and specialists, an airport can have complete control of ensuring wayfinding best serves the safety of the airport community (tenants, staff and passengers) through the design of terminal. It does require close consultation with the emergency service organisations, as well as tenants, and should take account of normal operations, heightened threat, emergency evacuation and business recovery periods.
Using a user-centred design approach, coupled with an understanding of human factors and behaviours, the differences between these operational periods can be examined, the space designed, and wayfinding products incorporated accordingly. A very simple example is that, for airports who have identified marauding armed assault as a credible risk, the airport must design the space, including the use of wayfinding products, that drive a certain behaviour during a highly stressful period of time. Examples of wayfinding methods in this case could include open areas that represent safety and are obvious to people when decision-making is likely to be impaired; avoiding ‘dead-ends’ in the building or, if they exist due to legacy infrastructure, installing wayfinding products that intuitively lead or overtly direct people away from those points.
Consideration 5 –
Multi-user and Coordinated Approach
Challenges for the airport will arise where it does not own a terminal interfacing asset, and therefore the wayfinding strategy. Typical examples include rail stations at airports. It is imperative that wayfinding strategies are coordinated and aligned so as to minimise confusion during periods of evacuation. The strategy might include arrangements such as simple alignment of signage (colour and style), avoiding cross flow of evacuation routes, and consistency in communications such as language and instruction.
Consideration 6 –
Design for Inclusivity
A good design process is very inclusive of the people we are aiming to help. Inclusivity goes far beyond the consideration of only physical characteristics – the definition of a person of reduced mobility (PRM) now correctly includes those individuals who may contextually have a reason for reduced mobility (such as individuals travelling with multiple children), as well as those whose mobility is affected by other characteristics (such as sensory or cognitive disability). An individual is defined by multiple factors, including their knowledge and experience, confidence and familiarity (situational characteristics), physical/sensory/cognitive capability, as well as their culture, religion and familial characteristics (social characteristics).
The challenge of ‘inclusivity’ is significantly increased when negotiating the security screening process. Notoriously a point of heightened stress, frustration and anxiety – and perhaps the weakest link in the experience chain – how do we ensure that physical or cognitive disability, and hence difficulties in complying with rigid process, or further cultural differences, do not exacerbate detrimental social or emotional outcomes. Messaging, signage and human interaction can all be used to communicate, support, reassure and include all passengers in this vital process.


As technology and how people use space change, integrated wayfinding experience must consider every potential touchpoint as an opportunity to deliver consistent and relevant information to people. Designers must shape the moments beyond signage including architecture, interiors, printed materials, staff interactions, and digital wayfinding. In order to do this, design will have to constantly work to understand shifting human behaviours and experiment with new solutions. As people and spaces evolve, how we design must also change. For security specifically, a balance must be struck between providing an excellent passenger experience whilst accommodating needs during other operational situations.

Imagine a travel experience that could better anticipate human needs and provide relevant information at every stage. Imagine clear and consistent messaging across all signage, displays and devices. An environment that intuitively connects and guides passengers and staff to their objectives. Also, think of how the use of digital technology can help operations teams make adjustments during peak or emergency situations.

Paul McConnell focuses on using design methods and technology to solve human, business, and civic problems. As Head of Arup’s Digital Studio he guides multidisciplinary teams towards breakthrough solutions that take shape in digital products, services, and physical spaces. Paul is a published author, conference speaker, and serves as a visiting professor at Pratt Institute and the School of Visual Arts.

Mandana Kazem is a Principal Human Factors Consultant, Systems Engineer and Technical Manager at Arup, and is a lead in Human Factors and User Centred Design – supporting organisations across industries to unlock the capability of the human within the system. Mandana helps clients develop products, systems, infrastructure, processes and organisations, that enhance human performance, engagement and experience.

Transparent Labyrinths: making airport signage crystal clear

Airports are confusing facilities by nature. At times, entering an unfamiliar airport may be an overwhelming experience – a colourful, hectic, overcrowded, noisy, chaotic ‘monster’ awash with a forest of signs as far as the eye can see, many of which seem to require decoding to unveil their inner meaning. Roni Tidhar directs us through the myriad of messages which are designed to enable multi-lingual passengers to reach their desired gate or baggage carousel and, in doing so, ensure flights depart both secure and on time.

Every time we travel, be it alone or with colleagues, either en route to a business assignment or on holiday, it’s an experience. Often one which takes place at odd hours of the day, and sometimes whilst seemingly struck down with ‘travel fever’, and almost always whilst under pressure to get to our correct departure gate or flight on time, without, at the check-in, even knowing how many obstacles we might encounter along the way through terminals of sometimes gargantuan proportions, where we have little control over the processes and queues which may slow us down, whilst not mislaying luggage or, worse still, a fellow traveller… especially if that happens to be a young child or elderly relative. Yes, like the sentence itself, it’s quite an ordeal to get from the starting point to one’s destination!

Even for experienced travellers, confusion and anxiety intensify upon arrival at foreign airports and all the more so if language barriers are also a factor. Even if some announcements or signs are in different languages, we must face the fact that those selected for display will not be comprehensible to all. All these physical and psychological effects negatively impact our demeanour when approaching security checkpoints, and that can be hugely significant in airports that employ behavioural detection officers looking for signs of stress or hesitation.

Some travellers do actually consult websites to study the airport in advance of a trip or utilise apps that offer guided directions. Yet in reality, most people tend to either refer to the airport’s signage or approach information desks or airport employees who, sometimes, become annoyed by the seemingly endless stream of seemingly silly questions travellers are prone to pose.

As an airport operator, we aspire to reduce our customers tension, provide an inviting ambience and ease the travel experience so that passengers feel welcome and wanted. That is reflected, amongst other things, in their spending money at concessionaires’ shops and restaurants. And, for operational reasons, we obviously want to prevent last minute rushing to gates or passengers even missing their flights which then results in offloading baggage from aircraft and subsequent delays.

An appropriate security signage strategy can work to our benefit, promoting compliance in a sensitive environment. We need to be as informative as we can and, in order to do so, our signs need to embody an associative approach which exhibit a multi-cultural orientation, and stand out effectively using serene colours which are easy on the eye. Icons should both command attention and orientate those who are seeking direction.

Using ideograms as a common denominator is a preferred way to communicate with an international clientele. This avoids exhausting multi-lingual explanations, saves valuable billboard advertising space and reduces the need for a cacophony of verbal announcements throughout the airport. Most preferable are common language signs, of standard sizes and utilising bold fonts with background colours which are easily read by young and old. Complex signs may result in even more confusion and place an even greater burden on airport staff.

From an airport security operator’s perspective, a reasonable use of airport signage can contribute immensely to addressing a few of our major needs. Directions to relevant security areas facilitates a more efficient use of manpower whilst minimising delays. This includes signs offering appropriate instructions as to how to best prepare for upcoming security/immigration/customs checks, what they must divest from bags or pockets and what clothing needs to be removed. Those rules must be clear for brief review by large crowds in motion, support the queue regime (e.g. tolerance for waiting time or desire to keep people on the move), allow effective preparation time for passengers to present necessary documentation, dispose of excess liquids aerosols and gels (LAGs), and support the passenger to prepare themselves, and their carry-on baggage, appropriately to meet the security demands in order to expedite checks without the need for repeating unnecessary steps and secondary checks.

Using airport topography, planners need to exploit various location opportunities to broadcast desired security information: vehicle checkpoints on the approach roads to the airport (if applicable); kerbside road warnings; sidewalks and terminal façade signage; unattended luggage awareness; directions to security/police points; evacuation routes; safe shelters for various uses (depending on a subjective threat analysis); local hotline to emergency services to report irregularities and make emergency calls; intermittent awareness-raising public service security announcements; LAGs or forgotten blades drop-bins prior to security checkpoints; and, whom to approach to report something immediately after landing in a new airport (for example, concerns over victims of human trafficking or quarantine regulations related to food products).

Another achievable goal is using signage to increase the deterrent effect of security. ‘Prepare your documents for security inspection’, ‘This place is under video surveillance’, ‘Please obey security staff’, or ‘See something, say something’ are all messages which can reassure the public that security precautions are in place, thereby helping alleviate stress, whilst also deterring a potential attacker.

One of the challenges we face is the contradiction between safety signs requirements and security prohibitions, such as emergency evacuation route instructions vs. restricted area access control. For example, the safest location for the public to use in case of fire or civil aviation emergency isn’t always the most secure evacuation point from a counterterrorism perspective. We shouldn’t drive people to unsafe zones while trying to save lives. This might contribute to operational havoc and negatively impact the passengers’ experience and confidence.

We must strive not to over-sign our airports. We should aspire to demonstrate maximum security and service gains from readable prominent signage while reducing confusion by avoiding an excess of signs in a rainbow of colours!

Roni Tidhar serves as the Israel Airports Authority’s (IAA) Head of International Consulting Services – commercial branch. He has vast experience in civil aviation security and emergency management from his 27 years in Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport’s Security Division (in multiple positions) and many years prior to that as El Al Israeli Airlines’ Air-Marshal & Operational Flights Security Manager, in which capacity he worked at dozens of airports across the globe. He is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board for Aviation Security International and keynote speaker at conferences worldwide. He has a B.A. in Political Science & Far East Studies from Hebrew University in Jerusalem and M.A. in Security & Diplomacy for Senior Management from Tel Aviv University. He is an active senior officer to IDF (reserve units) and a volunteer Police Squad Commander.