Can you tell us a bit about your professional background before you founded Spaceagency Design?
After working in Germany during and immediately after graduating, I started working in UNStudio in Amsterdam first on the Competition for the Mercedes Benz Museum in Stuttgart and after we won it, seeing it through to completion. After UNStudio, I moved to London to work with Wilkinson Eyre on the Guangzhou West Tower, a 432m tower in Guangzhou through SD and DD and Future-Systems and Aedas after that. In 2011, I moved back to the Netherlands to work at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, mostly on large scale Architectural and Urban Design projects in the Middle East.
How did you partner with Sarah Manning and form your firm? How do you run Spaceagency together and share responsibilities?
Sarah has a strong background in user experience design and pedestrian movement through working in the Silicon Valley in the 1990s and London’s Space Syntax after graduating from the Architectural Association Design Research Lab in 2002.
We realised that both architects and graphic designers were working in silos from each other and we felt that by creating a multi-disciplinary team, we could do better and offer a more comprehensive and holistic design by looking at the user first.
You provide a very unique consultancy and service for architectural practices and developers. Can we say, it is very similar to what UX (User Experience) designers do in the digital world? Please, tell us how you work with architects and what do you provide for them?
Yes, that is fair to say. In fact, we often describe our work as creating a user interface for the built environment. You could say we take a user-centric, bottom-up perspective to plan out the way users navigate through buildings and spaces and the manner and the tone of voice with which the building or public space talks to its users and inhabitants.
We see our work as integral to the experience one has in a given environment. This environment is characterised by several factors – some are purely architectural, such as the overall configuration and layout of the space. Others depend on the particular function and include lighting, materials and finishes, acoustics and sound, temperature, environmental graphics and maybe even scents. Together these factors create a particular, holistic character. We believe that the more coherent and consistent this character is, the more compelling and convincing it will be, and as such, our design philosophy is about integration, not addition. Generally speaking, at the end of the day, what all of the designers on a project are trying to create is one experience – not a lighting or architectural experience, but one experience that encompasses all the senses.
In this context, our approach is to integrate with the architecture as much as possible – rather than creating additive ‘applications’ – meaning our work should read as- and be part of the architecture as much as possible. We are often re-interpreting the key characteristic elements of the architecture on a graphic design and product design scale.
In terms of our services, we normally follow an analytical and creative avenue in parallel at the outset of a new project. On the analytical side, we start with analysing what we call the ‘movement framework’ of a building. That is, a structured and hierarchal network of all circulation routes, including decision points – points where the user will need to make a decision – and therefore require information. This – this is the very small, human perspective. We then analyse what type of information will be required at each location. This requires an overall knowledge of all the destinations and types of destinations the project has, which can be quite extensive on a large project and may require a strategy to deal with them. This is the rather larger picture where we need to understand the overall project and sometimes even the wider urban context.
The types of spaces requiring information combined with the types of information required will lead to a suite of sign types that will be developed into a suite of products and typical artwork for the different types of signs.
On the creative side, we’ll start to develop a concept, much like in architecture, and research the client or brand we are dealing with, the project’s cultural drivers and, of course, the formal language of the architecture we are working with. Based on that we’ll start to develop a formal product and graphic design language. This normally follows a similar design process and the architecture, with the concept, schematic and design development and eventually tender and construction supervision.
Wayfinding is not one of the first consultancy services architects think of when forming their project design teams. It is rather considered as a complementary optional service. However, it might be too late for you to step in when the design is finalised. How do you cope with this predicament?
Yes, in the early days, of course, there are often bigger picture items to solve for the architect. We would often get involved during the SD(schematic design) stage and quite quickly catch up with our concept work, so that by the end of SD and certainly DD(Developed Design), there is an integrated and well-coordinated package. If you think of transport and sport-led projects, the way people get in and out, how they find their seat and the restrooms, is fundamental to the functioning of the building. Think of a tube, a train station, a hotel, a hospital or an airport – I don’t think our clients see wayfinding as optional. We recently finished our work for the new midfield terminal in Abu Dhabi – these places have dozens of high level, primary destinations that passengers need to find or else they could even miss their flight. On top of that, there is the whole digital media topic. Heathrow Airport has an entire Signage in-house team because wayfinding is so critical in their environments.
Generally, we tend to work with architects and developers who understand and share our vision about a well-integrated and seamless navigation system. We offer bespoke solutions that speak the same language as the architecture – not off the shelf, readymade products.
Our goal really is to create a seamless customer experience where the signage is as integrated into the architecture and speaks the same language as possible. If it’s done well by designers who take it seriously and care about it as a design task we can achieve that. If it’s neglected, not taken seriously, and left to the operator or builder at the last minute, poor signage can overwhelm the architecture and look messy. Unfortunately, this can be seen in too many examples and by the nature of it, there is no hiding it. To give an example, in a retail environment, the tenants will want their brand name to be visible and in many cases will have a legal right to that as part of their lease – so in this example, the task would be to create guidelines, materiality, size, illumination, mounting, colours, etc. to create a level of consistency between different brands.
Luckily, we have seen clients and architects become increasingly aware of the importance of this. In our experience, the more the design progresses, the more interested and excited the client tends to become – wayfinding and signage is the piece of design customers seek-out and actively look at when navigating through the built environment. Our clients realize that this a key ‘touch-point’ between customers and the brand. Over the last few years, we have seen a steadily increasing demand and interest in wayfinding, and most of the new tenders specifically ask for a wayfinding consultant.
Increasingly we get also asked to help our clients to establish a destination identity for their assets to support placemaking, which we are very excited about. For example, we recently completed our work for a monumental sculptural gateway piece, 16m tall, to welcome people driving onto Yas Island in Abu Dhabi. These are strictly speaking not Wayfinding, but creative interpretations of our clients’ brands and the particular characteristics of the site. This is a growing field and developers and architects are becoming more and more aware of its relevance. We’re very interested in the experiential, placemaking elements that we can bring to a project.
You have many projects in the Middle East and in Asian countries in addition to the UK and European countries. Wayfinding is much related to the script. How do you deal with different types of script systems?
We have native Mandarin and Arabic speakers as part of our design team who provide valuable input on the cultural particularities. We typically work on bilingual signage systems. The wayfinding for the Kazakh Expo in Nursultan (Astana) even had to be trilingual – Kazakh, Russian and English.
As part of our holistic design approach, we see typography and iconography as part of the overall sign concept, and we select design typefaces and develop specific icons that build an overall design language with common graphic elements – which could be more curvy, more angular or something entirely different, depending on the architectural context. As part of our work for the Dubai Expo 2020, based upon our concept of weaving together cultures, we also had the opportunity to collaborate with a group of women weavers in Abu Dhabi who keep alive the UNESCO world heritage protected craft of Al Sadu – a weaving technique particular to the region. This was a really exciting experience to be able to work with local craftspeople and bring their work to a global event
Some architects argue that “successful design should not need a wayfinding system”. To them, “this is like adding subtitles to artwork and good spatial organisation will lead the people to where they should be”. How do you respond to such claims?
This is an interesting point, and I am glad you are asking it. Having worked in architecture myself for 20 years, I can certainly understand and appreciate this point. Our philosophy has been from the very beginning, that wayfinding should be as intuitive, minimal, and simple as possible. I would say our approach to wayfinding is very architectural and, to put it simply, if I can see it, I don’t need a sign. In fact, we sometimes use Space Syntax to help to predict intuitive people movement and flows. In an ideal scenario we are involved already in the early stages of a project and can support the architect in designing and intuitive layout and route system. If you start digging at a level deeper, you soon begin to realize that it becomes a bit more complex than that. Architecture has to balance a lot of competing parameters, of which wayfinding is only one and a level of augmentation is often needed to communicate all the relevant information.
To go back to your question, I would like to turn it around – why do we add subtitles to artwork? Perhaps films are the obvious example – because they speak a different language – a language that you may not understand. Most people do not understand space, cannot read a map or know a great deal about architecture. As such, our work is in ‘decoding’ the space and making it accessible. To stay in the picture, if you were to show a Matisse and a Van Gough to random people in the street – I am willing to bet that a great percentage will not be able to tell the difference, let alone decode or understand the artwork.
As all the different disciplines we need to properly coordinate and work together to create the best possible user experience. If the Design team ignores signage in large public buildings, users of those buildings will eventually complain and the operator will be forced to add signage themselves. This will always be additive and almost certainly not look or work as well as a well considered solution that has been developed as an integral part of the design.
Our work aims to create a link between the rather large and ‘top-down’ scale of architecture and urban design with the tangible, human scale that people can touch and experience 1:1. To give an example from a project we worked on a few years back – we were working on a masterplan that had a really clear and interesting concept. Unfortunately, you could only perceive this in plan for by flying in a helicopter – at street level the concept was entirely lost and unperceivable. We saw this as an opportunity to bring some of the key characteristics of the masterplan to the street level at a tangible, human scale, translating the architectural design concept into a language and scale that people could read and understand.
How do you design wayfinding systems for buildings such as shopping arcades or museums of which different user groups consisting of elderly people, children and people with different cultural backgrounds use together?
Wayfinding must always be inclusive and be accessible to all. Low-sighted people, people with mobility impairments or people with various cognitive impairments may have any limitations on how they use and experience a building. On our projects with Network Rail and Transport for Greater Manchester, we worked with their relevant interest groups to talk through our proposals and hear their perspective on signage designs, going through several rounds of approvals to find creative and functional solutions.
In terms of different cultures, while there are certainly cultural particularities in terms of colour and symbols. However, we have found he need for orientation and direction to be somewhat universal. Our cognitive systems to orient ourselves and find our way are the same, even if our symbolic interpretation in reading signage may differ. It is also important to realize the different type of projects: for example, signage in an airport or train station, where anxiety levels tend to be high and people tend to be stressed to get to their flight or train in time is quite different from signage in a more leisurely environment such as a park. Signage in an airport needs to be highly functional and convey a large amount of information in the most efficient way. Signage in more leisurely environments signage can be more playful – incorporate patterns, playful icons, and other decorative items.
What other sensory tactics other than visual ones can be used to control people’s movements and enhance their experience in large buildings and spaces?
There are number of techniques that can and should be used if appropriate. First of all it is fundamental to have a clear spatial structure and layout. The clearer the layout is the less explicit wayfinding and signage you will need. If the layout of space is overly complex and confusing, you will have a much harder time compensating that with secondary and tertiary measures. Of course, you can use lighting, daylight, colour and finishes to guide the overall movement of people and we are often working with the architects and interior designers to help plan this in the early days of a project. There will be limits as to how much you can achieve with this – imagine directing a spectator in a football station to Block A, row 11, seat 25, purely through lighting.
What was the most challenging project you’ve undertaken so far?
Just like in architecture, projects can be challenging for a number of reasons, such as technical complexity, commercial constraints, a lack of decision making by the client, competing stakeholders, or ongoing changes to the architectural layout.
In terms of complexity and scale I would think our project for the Dubai Expo 2020 (Opening in October 21) is certainly one off the more challenging projects, partly due to COVID and the delayed opening, but also due to changes in the list of participating countries and the off-site fabrication of our designs in China.
Two years ago you published the ‘Spaceagency Guide to Wayfinding’ as a book. How was it received by the architects and developers so far?
The Spaceagency Guide to Wayfinding has been received extremely well and I believe the first print-run is almost sold out now. It has also just been selected to be carried in the design museum in London, which is something we are very excited about.
The Spaceagency Guide to Wayfinding has been published in English and Chinese, that can be available through leading bookshops and Amazon.