All across the globe, members of the public have to navigate through increasingly complex environments. For all their diversities, the world’s cities are all remarkably similar in basic layout and because of this you might expect that every country approaches its wayfinding in largely the same way. It would make sense to, after all we’re all human aren’t we? Surely we all view navigation the same way? This however isn’t the case and different parts of the world offer a whole myriad of differences in their wayfinding; some more effective than others!
What’s in a Name?
One element that links nearly every European and Western city is that their wayfinding systems make use of street names. It might seem like a very basic detail of a city’s wayfinding scheme and hugely impractical to omit them, but many countries simply don’t use street names!
In Japan the wayfinding system is area based, not street based, so there is no need for street names. Only the very largest cities like Tokyo and Kyoto make use of street names, and even then they aren’t employed in great numbers. Japanese addresses usually indicate the names of blocks, building numbers or districts; they may also include the names and numbers of wards and even towns. To this end, if you ask someone for directions in Japan, as well as verbal instructions you’ll usually be drawn a crude map detailing specific landmarks like restaurants or subway stations. It might seem uncharacteristic that a country as technologically advanced and generally forward-thinking as Japan would have such a needlessly difficult wayfinding structure, but that’s how it has always been and the locals are used to it.
In Brazil there are some locations that also don’t use street names, but rather block names. This is a little easier to get your head around than Japan’s hugely variable system, but there’s still an issue in larger Brazilian cities like Brasilia where the block size can vary massively. Commercial blocks can occupy a full city block, or two blocks, but residential blocks occupy two block halves around a street.
Some countries whose cities are devoid of street names are indeed working to rectify the issue. In Ghana only the most major roads currently have titles, but the government recently ordered Municipal Assemblies across the country to name all roads nationwide within 18 months. Abu Dhabi, which sprang up from the Persian Gulf in the 1960s and has been a hive of activity ever since, has no time to pause and fine-tune its own wayfinding structure. To solve this, the Abu Dhabi Municipality employed an American design company and tasked them with naming every single street in the city…all 12,000 of them!
The Language Barrier
Although wayfinding systems are typically present in culturally diverse spaces like city centres and busy shopping areas, not all signage is particularly user-friendly to foreigners. Much of the signage in America is particularly difficult for non-locals to use, for the simple reason that many signs use English words to list information where universally understood symbols would be much more appropriate.
Some countries, when using signs written in their native language, do at least make the effort of providing a translation for foreigners. Translations between similar languages featuring the same characters or similar speech patterns usually work just fine, but the results can be hilariously bad when featuring two starkly different languages such as English and Mandarin, and especially so if the information is a detailed instruction rather than a single word. Often the translation is a literal, word-for-word rendition that makes little sense in the new language. Of course the advantage of these mistakes is that they are attention grabbing….but that’s only a positive if they’re displaying the correct information in the first place!
Sometimes, certain locations fundamentally need to employ a fairly standardized wayfinding scheme or the result would most likely be chaos. Airports are by-and-large the most internationally diverse buildings in any given country, with dozens of different nationalities passing through them every single day and often urgently needing to be easily navigated to where they need to go.
To this end, airports’ wayfinding systems are, thankfully, remarkably similar the world over. The symbols used for identifying bathrooms, information desks and currency exchange are broadly recognizable to just about anybody and this global “symbol language” ensures that the public are well-versed and comfortable in finding their way.
Should it be the Same?
Short of something drastic such as devising an entirely global wayfinding structure that all countries must conform to, it seems that different parts of the world will always have distinctive wayfinding compared to our own, some aspects subtle and some rather more pronounced. But isn’t that part of the charm and appeal of visiting another country, that there are so many differences and contrasts to life back home? Places like airports and train stations are the exception – people can be rushed, stressed and just want to be informed of where they need to go. But surely if all wayfinding signage was identical the world over, countries would lose some of their character and diversity.