SVA MA Design Research

SVA MA Design Research, Writing & Criticism1 is a one-year graduate program2
devoted to the study of design, its contexts & consequences.
Our graduates have gone on to pursue research-related careers in publishing, education, museums, institutes, design practice, entrepreneurship, & more.3

  1. Formerly known as D-Crit
  2. About the program
  3. Applications accepted on a rolling basis. All successful candidates awarded a significant scholarship!
SVA MA Design Research

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Framing The Wayfinding Experience Through The Lens Of A City Language – SVA MA Design Research

Olivia Mercado

Framing The Wayfinding Experience Through The Lens Of A City Language

As designers, we craft the tools deemed necessary to understand and translate the world around us.

This is an excerpt from Olivia Mercado Velasco’s larger thesis portfolio, titled “Lost in Translation: Framing the Wayfinding Experience Through the Lens of a City Language.” This work can also be found in the Class of 2019 publication, Everything That Rises: Thinking about Design in Precarious Times.

Wayfinding is not just a beautiful map and well-designed signs. It’s a practice that should aim to encourage humans’ abilities to find their paths and promote urban mobility. This feels especially imperative since 55 percent of the world’s population is thought to be living in an urban area or city, with that figure set to rise to 68 percent over the coming decades.¹  

On its own, wayfinding refers to the activities and processes of individuals navigating and finding their ways in and through a specific environment,² and to the sense of one’s spatial awareness, considering how buildings and other structures may provide signals that aid orientation.³

According to urban planner and architect Edmund N. Bacon, “legible” cities are those whose patterns lend themselves to coherent, organized, recognizable, and comprehensible mental images.4 These patterns help us organize the cityscape in our heads, allowing the creation of mind maps, so when a city is “easy to read,” it is inherently easy to navigate.

Wayfinding systems that highlight the experience of pedestrians—not just traffic-oriented information for drivers and vehicles—encourage wanderers to discover the feeling of the place they are in, impacting the lives of inhabitants and their discourse with the city. These comprehensive systems make the city more understandable, ready to be discovered and interpreted. 

The seemingly simple ways in which quotidian elements can define a place—for example, the coffee we drink, the corner stores we go into, or the music we hear on the streets—is a concept that should be deeply explored, particularly given the ephemerality and the velocity of change of our cultural touchstones. Each city, or even each neighborhood, has a language of its own that impacts our perception of it and how we travel across, to, and from its space. As semiotician Roland Barthes would say: “The city speaks to its inhabitants; we speak our city, the city where we are, simply by living in it, by wandering through it, by looking at it.” Understanding the language of a city, then, is the job of designers, architects, and urban planners, but also of pedestrians, in order to contextualize our experiences with the built environment, and to truly engage with it.

If the city of New York has a language of its own––that is, it’s not the one of Paris, London, or any other city––its inhabitants are the ones bringing it to life by speaking its language. How do neighborhoods like Flushing, Queens and Harlem in Manhattan interact (as creoles or dialects) with the official language of New York City? This comparison allows for a more objective analysis of human dynamics that focuses on the visual symbolism of specific city languages. The framework translates into effective design models for wayfinding systems to merge into the built environment without erasing the identity of the place they are inhabiting, while helping people navigate those spaces in the process. Also, it is set up to be a useful framework for evaluating the effectiveness of wayfinding systems in public spaces, since, generally speaking, research conducted in the urban environment post-implementation of wayfinding systems is largely missing.

As designers, we craft the tools deemed necessary to understand and translate the world around us. This requires a multidisciplinary approach, borrowing from statistical analysis and estimations of human behavior. Applying new frameworks of reference that help our understanding of how the process of wayfinding takes place, and the language people use in response to it, can garner impactful results.

While constructing the framework of the city as a language, then, additional patterns start to emerge:

  • Vernacular, idiomatic forms of speech: referring to the person on the street, the citizen, going into the everyday routine.
  • The constructed dialect: enabled by the power holder, the shop owner. 
  • The official structural language: the city. 

And then there is the work of the designer, who has to talk across the whole spectrum, act as a translator, a code-switcher. They need to understand the vernacular language, and respect and accept it, even when it might not be cohesive, or when it might conflict with the larger, bureaucratic structural language. 

People who live in a specified area own its vernacular––they get to determine how to use the language of their space. The designer needs to be a better facilitator between the needs of the city-structure (the official language) and the needs of the citizens (appropriated or reinterpreted vernaculars). Designers cannot negate the identity and importance of the vernacular language because it is the base that keeps the larger language always active, always representative of the times.

If we could use this metaphor of the city language to interrogate the effectiveness of wayfinding systems once they are in place, we could ask questions that are meaningful and take the stance of the people—not just the clients or the larger systems (linguistic structures) at play. So instead of the designer asking people to change their vernacular to suit the major “official” language of the space, we could question: 

  • Are people creating their own “idiom” of the space, based on the wayfinding system that has been implemented in it?
  • Has a new phonetic language emerged from it?
  • Is there a new set of semiotics that is being integrated into the space?
  • How do people respond once they are no longer first-time users of the systems in place? 

How do we ensure designers are doing work to recognize the very important self-identity-building that happens in these local and hyper-local spaces? We must recognize that the wayfinding designer’s goal is not to purposely negate people’s sense of identity, nor their ability to find their way in public space across highly dense metropolises. We must question the visuals, in their designers’ inclinations to overly design and curate spaces, and to only pay attention to bureaucratic and more universal wayfinding signs (that is, as it occurs at the expense of analysing their impact on the lives of people and how they might be creating their own signs systems in response). 

In this sense, wayfinding systems interrogated through the framework of language can respond to how people have integrated these systems into their lives. And as cities engage in a dialogue with their inhabitants and respond to their demands, wayfinding can act as a bridge between how citizens and communities want to be represented in the context of their cities, and how cities want to be perceived by their citizens in return.  


¹ Sam Meredith, “Two-thirds of Global Population Will Live in Cities by 2050, UN Says” CNBC. May 17, 2018. Accessed April 05, 2019.

² Reginald Golledge, Wayfinding behavior: Cognitive mapping and other spatial processes, (JHU press, 1999), 24.

3 Christopher Pullman in The Wayfinding Handbook : Information Design for Public Places / David Gibson (Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2009) 7.

4 Edmund N. Bacon, “Language of Cities.” The Town Planning Review. Vol. 56, No. 2, Design and Conservation in the City, (Liverpool University Press, Apr., 1985), 174-196.