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September 10, 2014

Signs, Screens, and Swerving

By Leslie Wolke

“Are better signs the secret to a successful city?” That’s the question Steven Poole poses in the Guardian’s Resilient Cities series. As he ambles toward an answer, Poole explores “Legible Cities”: the physical and digital wayfinding system first built for the city of Bristol, and then expanded and refined for Brighton and London over the last decade.

Poole calls Legible Cities a “movement” and, in fact, the system has made that rare leap from a successful project to the realm of best practice and buzzword. In 2010, I wrote about Legible City Brighton in an article for segdDESIGN under the headline “Wayfinding in Your Pocket”. I learnt that the creators of Legible Cities (City ID, Applied and others) had built the system on a pair of novel postulations that, today, we shrug off as unremarkable facts:

1. Wayfinding is not a forest of signs with arrows; it is a network of information

Nodes are places and routes are synapses. This network and its web of interrelationships can be rendered as physical signage, displayed on a screen in the palm of your hand, or whispered in your ear by Siri.

But first and foremost it is a network — structured data that convey meaning through connection. The deeper and more granular those connections are, the more helpful it becomes to the end-user – as in, “Show me all the cafés with cold-brewed coffee and WiFi within a 10-minute walk from here”.

2. By extension, the city itself is a platform: an organizing framework for the people who transverse it and the buildings and things that inhabit it.

We compose layers of information upon the city platform: transit schedules, restaurant reviews, our friends’ addresses, and secret shortcuts. The ideas behind Legible Cities underpin our evolving understanding of the city and our place in it.

In his article, Steven Poole taps into the legible city (lowercase, not Legible London’s branded system) to guide him to a new pub. In his earbud, Google interrupts his personal soundtrack to tell him to turn left or right. He successfully gets from point A to point Pub, but questions the instructive value of the experience:

“There’s no way I would find my way to that pub again without help. And I had taken no notice at all of my surroundings. It was as though I had passed frictionlessly through an opaque sonic tunnel.”

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I would suggest that the “sonic tunnel” was a result of his soundtrack (self-professed: Queens of the Stone Age), not the interjected directions that guided him. Listening to step-by-step instruction is a much lighter cognitive load than squinting at maps. Aside from gentle taps on the shoulder (which may arrive soon with wearable technology), auditory cues are the most effective way to receive and respond to navigational information. Just last week, I learned a bit about the landscape and urbanscape of St. Louis by following the Google Maps voice from the art museum to an Italian deli in the Hill neighborhood.

Poole does raise provocative questions about authorship of the legible city: the power implicit in promoting neighbourhoods and points of interest in any given wayfinding system. But perhaps his most compelling passage is an ode to wandering, getting lost, and the romantic notion of the “flaneûr”.  It was surprising to learn from Poole that serendipitous city adventures were elevated to an art form by the French (mais bien sûr) as dérive (literally, “drifting”).

I call it “swerving and swooning”—navigating the city by surprising piques of interest, turning toward a faint drumbeat or a whiff of just baked bread. You never know what the city will reveal.

Leslie Wolke (@lawolke) is a wayfinding technology consultant and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog originally appeared at her website, lesliewolke.com.

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