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Alternative Wayfinding Tools. New methods for guiding people through spaces of leisure

When trying to find your way in spaces unfamiliar to you, the goal is most often to get to the target destination as fast as possible. This makes sense in spaces such as airports and hospitals, where it is crucial to find your way in time. In places intended for leisure and enjoyment, such as botanical gardens, zoos, and open-house events at schools, you do not have the same need to get to your destination as fast as possible. Instead, you are there to relax and explore. In these spaces, we are however still guided by the same maps and signs helping us to get somewhere fast and efficient. I believe it is possible to create guidance systems that both lead people from a to b and, at the same time, reflect and highlight the qualities and characteristics of the given space, which ultimately enhances the visitors’ experience of space. My thesis is an exploration of what alternative wayfinding tools could look like and work in spaces of leisure, and what the possibilities and limits of such tools are.

Some of the most commonly used wayfinding tools are top-view maps and directional signs. These tools are a combination of graphical elements we have learned to read and be guided by. We can read these wayfinding tools quite efficiently, as they have become the norm. But norms have been created, and new ones can be made. In the most frequently used maps, including the top-view map, people are guided through how the environment is connected in physical space. My solutions try to go against that, using parameters such as sounds or path widths.

To come up with solutions, I considered it necessary to work with an existing space. I chose the Merian Gardens in Basel as a case study for my experiments. The Merian Gardens are full of beautiful and rare plants waiting for the visitors to find. Visitors go to the gardens to relax and recharge or, simply, to look at the plants. They have some rare botanical collections they would like to bring to our attention, but when walking through the gardens you hardly notice that you are somewhere special. Another problem for gardens, in general, is that many people have not discovered the qualities of plants, a phenomenon called “plant blindness”. I try to solve these two problems by leading visitors to the rare collections of the Merian Gardens using and highlighting characteristics of the space and the plants.

My design process has been hands-on and divided into four intertwining phases. In the first phase, I collected data and information about the space through, for example, interviews, image capturing, and sound recording. In the second phase, I clustered my findings, trying to find the most important characteristics and discover possibilities for guidance. In the third phase, I created wayfinding solutions based on the characteristics. In this phase, the solutions were quite idealistic, so in phase four, I tested the limits of the solutions in the gardens themselves.

The final product is a wayfinding experience, leading visitors to a blooming botanical collection using alternative wayfinding tools. The experience is targeted towards recreational users of the Merian Gardens, especially families with young children.
Basel, 2019