An example of a wayfinder and wayfinding

In the previous post I talked a little about what wayfinding is. Remember?

Put simply, wayfinding can refer to the finding of one’s way through a landscape via the use of cues, such as maps or landmarks.

In this post, I want to give some examples of wayfinding, so that we can begin to explore the concept with an eye toward eventually putting it into practice.

Early forms of wayfinding included songs, pictograms, stories, and the creation and identification of visual landmarks such as broken branches, or schools of fish (Morville, 2005). These forms of wayfinding predominately drew on local histories as well as knowledges, and spatial references such as directionality were localised as well. For instance, in his sociological study of Polynesian kinship, Firth (1936) recorded one local as saying to another, “there is a spot of mud on your seaward cheek” (p. 19). Of course, over 80 years later, we now have technologies that allow us to discover our location on the planet (i.e., Global Positioning Systems, or GPS), but we also continue to rely on the use of localised spatial references and conceptual aids such as maps, language, and landmarks.

Here is one image you are probably already familiar with:

To Bourbon Street, please!

To Bourbon Street, please!

The above image is an example of a wayfinder. You've likely used one before. To use, you locate your destination, where you are in relation to your destination, and a path to get there.

Remember that the process that underlies wayfinding includes at least three things: 1) locating a destination, 2) locating one’s position in relation to the destination, and 3) undertaking a journey with the use of navigational aids.

Maybe you might be wondering, "what if I don't know where I want to go?"

Maybe you might even add a few exclamation points to that statement, along with some irritation. Take a deep breath, because here is how wayfinding might still apply.

In his discussion of traditional wayfinding in physical spaces, Golledge (1992) defines the wayfinding process model as requiring the “definition of an origin, the ability to recognize a destination when confronted with it, and the ability to string together path segments and turn angles in an appropriate order to [reach] the destination” (p. 206). The ability to recognise a destination is important in wayfinding, but Golledge (1992) also notes that we need only be familiar with the destination in some way. Familiarity is a tangled concept that holds many meanings in the wayfinding literature (Golledge, 1992). For instance, Golledge (1992) notes that one might say they are familiar with a place because they have been there, or they may know just its name or can identify an image of it. We use familiarity as a means to orient ourselves and this familiarity can be acquired via a number of ways, e.g., through experience or through the experiences that others have shared with us (Hund & Nazarczuk, 2009). Therefore, even if we have not undertaken a particular wayfinding journey ourselves, we may be able to utilise and learn from the experiences of others to guide our way.

Golledge (1992) writes:

Most of the information we collect about any given environment is obtained by travelling through it. We may travel through it physically, as by following a path between an origin and a destination in objective reality. We may also travel through an environment by reading a book, by listening to a verbal description, or from viewing image records such as slides, tape, or live television transmission. (p. 200)

Similar to Golledge (1992), Chia (2017) suggests that wayfinding is a process-oriented worldview that entails “constantly sensing, adapting and effectively responding to environmental solicitations . . . taking advantage of their affordances to meet . . . evolving needs” (p. 107). This view contrasts, Chia (2017) argues, with common views of navigation that emphasise “pre-charted maps” or “pre-set goals” (p. 114).

Returning back to the image (above) for a moment, imagine that you don't have a destination in mind. Instead, you have chosen a direction based on an internal or external cue, such as the promising smell of coffee, and you decide to follow it. To this end, even though wayfinding may be about locating and taking a path towards an intended destination, the destination doesn’t have to be a penultimate one. Rather, it can be a “destination-for-now”. In other words, you may not yet have a sense of the final end point or yet know where you are going. It seems that even in these cases, wayfinding still occurs, though in shorter segments.

I should note that wayfinding can also occur in familiar places as well (Spiers & Maquire, 2008). However, for the purposes of these blog posts, I focus on wayfinding in unfamiliar places since, as Thomson and Kamler (2016) note, one of the challenges post-gradaute students may experience is that there are no “neat map[s]” available to “navigate the landscape” (p. 34-35). Wayfinding may be one way to creatively explore this challenge, and therefore may act as a supportive learning bridge (Savin-Baden, 2008). 

In the next post, I start to connect this concept of wayfinding with another concept: doctoral writing, or more specifically, the writing process of doctoral students. I also discuss the concept of blocks, obstacles, and otherwise sticky places we find ourselves in when we engage in writing for academic purposes. 


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