Merson Group

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Jim Houston on Airport Wayfinding

By : Jim Houston

MSD’s Design Director Jim Houston discusses some of the roles and purposes of wayfinding signage in the world’s airports, and compares the effectiveness of digital signage to the more traditional method.

Jim Houston has more than 30 years of experience in the design and development of wayfinding for passenger terminals, and brings an unrivalled breadth and depth of knowledge to transport infrastructure projects across the globe.

How big of a role does digital signage play in wayfinding in airports? Is this likely to change?

Digital signage is taking over the areas of wayfinding where information is fluid, requiring updated or changed – information like flight destinations, times, check-in counters, gates, specific flight information and delayed or cancelled flights. All this information is displayed at airports on what is commonly referred to as an FID (Flight Information Display) screen.

Digital displays have replaced changeable information at check-in desks where airlines may share desks and flight security. Information is also highly variable, with digital displays and audio systems used for explaining the current security measures. To be able to provide an updated message or new security policy onto screens immediately has huge value for the airport operatives. Digital displays can easily interchange between languages, preventing the need for large multi-lingual static displays. However within the terminal environment as a whole there is very much the need for both static 'traditional' wayfinding and digital signage.

How does digital signage differ from traditional airport signage in terms of cost effectiveness?

Digital displays and air travel have expanded simultaneously where the need for more information has been required by a greater volume of travellers. The digital product is also providing more - and different - information than in the past so it's not something that can be compared directly in terms of cost effectiveness.
Traditionally a check-in desk would have a number of airline logos to 'slot' into a backdrop system. Today the desk operative selects the flight logo on a computer. Staffing to update the systems as well as the cost of the product are different cost centres to traditional static methods. It is critical that the information does get updated; stories of boarding flights from a gate that still had its previous flight destination on its screen doesn't fill passengers with confidence.

What impact do digital signs have on the traveller?

We seem to like little screens! Screens give us information exactly when it is required. Changes of terminal, check-in desk number, security zones, gate number, flight status; all this information is given to the traveller in a streamlined and efficient manner. Another benefit of this is passengers have the comfort of knowing there is time to shop, which is a big bonus from the airport’s point of view!

What range of locations can they be used in?

There are numerous areas, some more effective than others! We have been using it anywhere where there may be change, or where change is designed into the operation of the building/facility. These include forecourts, informing passengers arriving by train, bus or car, use in bus and train stations, check in halls, check-in desks, landside cafes and bars, security, immigration, emigration, gate numbers, airline information at gates, conversion to emergency information when required, welcome/departing information, even the current weather at a given destination.

What can digital signage do that old signage can't?

Be instantly interchangeable. Digital signage doesn't really replace static wayfinding signage, it prepares the passenger with prior knowledge and keeps them informed. However the traditional wayfinding signage is still there to show the way to that destination. These are generally fixed, physical locations such as toilets, security zones, retail, piers, levels and gate rooms. 

Have you considered how mobile phone technology can be used to interact with digital signage?

We worked on this a number of years back, however the development of phones and apps has been so extensive that much of the information displayed is already available on the phone, on the airline or the airport’s app. There may be further developments but security would need to ensure information is allowed one way only and not tampered with.

However we do believe it's important to keep your head up and off your phone whilst navigating through a busy airport, for obvious reasons!

Directing people through an airport terminal is less simple than it might sound because people don't always act logically. Can you explain how signage design addresses this? Can digital signage address this problem?

Not all people are logical and neither is the architecture! In new build projects where we work with the architects we may accomplish as much of an intuitive approach that can be achieved, but extensions to existing and developments to improve retail profits often create completely illogical tracks from check in through security to gate.

Signage, whether static or digital, is positioned according to architecture to maximise the effect. In busy retail areas wayfinding needs to stand out from the glare of advertising and digital signing, and in this context it doesn't always work.

Can you foresee a time in the near future where all airport signage is digital?

We don't believe there will ever be a time when it will be totally digital. As mentioned previously there are so many fixed locations which traditional signage is better suited to than digital signage. Architecture and the use of the building would need to work together to create this scenario and there are exciting opportunities to be realised, but we believe they will co-exist happily.

When placing digital signage in airports what specific needs of the airport environment must you take into account and what impact can this have on design?
Earlier we mentioned all the uses for digital signage and in each location the product is considered specific to the environment. We are involved in different approaches to various developments in security for instance that will affect the overall design of these areas.

Obviously digital signage will always need power and data, so there are some physical requirements although Bluetooth can resolve some of these. Natural light glare can also sometimes cause an issue, but architecture and careful positioning can usually resolve this.

How does the environment differ from a high street or a shopping mall, for example?

Although the difference between an airport and a shopping mall is becoming less defined, an airport has to deliver information which enables people to get from A to F, through B, C, D and E within a given time. In a shopping mall people are there to browse, so besides emergency evacuation routes everything else is for information only.

In your design do you also take into account how passengers feel in different parts of the airport? For example, their reaction to signage in security might be very different to how they'd react in the retail areas.

Absolutely. Again, we are often working with the architecture of these environments. Security is close proximity and focus is on the immediate concerns of the screening, removing the added anxiety of finding your flight. Airport operators also have different views though and best practices are not always adopted.

It's important to also consider how the buildings are operated and therefore the frequency at which information is placed. With aircraft turnaround time being significant, gates are not allocated until later in the process so passengers often have to make the majority of their journey after the gate announcement.  This means more displays (many of which are within the retail outlets themselves) are used in an attempt to increase visibility and improve the wayfinding experience. This is certainly something that static signage could not provide!

Jim Houston
Technical Design Director