Airports

6:30am on a hotel shuttle to the airport for an 8am flight is when I read the check-in time advice. "Travelling to the US from Canada? We advise arriving 2.5 hours in advance of your flight". Of course, I understand that airports build in safety factors and think about peak times so I assume I am in good shape. Arriving at the Toronto Pearson Terminal 1 at 6:40am I was therefore stunned to see the line up for security, 2.5 hours seemed accurate, I began to worry.

While standing in the line, I took a deep breath and drifted off to think about airport wayfinding design. Before 9/11, the ground-side - that area outside of security - was populated by newsagents, cafes and concessions. Now architects realize that the time and stress of getting through our various layers of security have moved the enjoyment of flying and the balance of commercial space to the airside. Outside of airside, the world is all about finding check-in, processing baggage and negotiating border controls - it's more about crowd-management than experiential design. 

For the wayfinding designer, there is hence a special need to make ground-side navigation simple and unmistakeable. Visual cues are much more important than signage and maps in busy and frenetic environments where people want to follow the herd and find it difficult to stop and read. Where information is needed, it must be unmissable, paired down to the minimum to avoid misunderstanding and even so, repeated several times. 

Airside however, modern airports transform in tandem with the almost audible sigh of relief from passengers. Airside the experience begins. Now the wayfinding designer is playing negotiator between the interests of the airline to get people to the gate without delay and the interest of the airport to have people indulge in the retail therapy that goes hand in hand with the vacation spirit.

Of course, like me, not all travellers get through to airside with time to browse the scents, small leathers and books. For me, on this day, airside means gate identification, estimating the journey time and wondering if there's time for coffee en route. Here wayfinding designers must practice the careful, considered process of progressively disclosing a hierarchy of information, a bread crumb trail providing just enough information to provide confidence but not overwhelm. 

I made my flight sans coffee, but with a renewed appreciation for how wayfinding is often the unsung hero of our busy lives.