Bringing the wayfinding standards into the 21st Century
New Wayfinding Standards for Port Authority of New York & New Jersey Receives SEGD Global Design Award
In the early 2000s, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey commissioned Mijksenaar to develop a system-wide wayfinding manual, which was ultimately adopted by all Port Authority airports. It showcased the value of a uniform system across all the terminals, becoming a global icon.
But over the years, changes such as post-9/11 security protocols, increasing passenger volumes, new transportation options, and shifted passenger flows conspired to a subpar experience. The Port Authority airports saw their ASQ ratings steadily fall, surpassed by new and renovated airports. Even then-Vice President Biden derided LaGuardia Airport:
“If I took you and blindfolded you and took you to LaGuardia Airport in New York, you’d think, ‘I must be in some third-world country.’”
– Vice President Joe Biden, 2014
As part of significant investment into its aviation facilities, the Port Authority approached Mijksenaar and W&CO to revamp its Wayfinding Standards. This provided a singular opportunity to refresh the airport wayfinding system to provide a unified, cohesive, 21-century experience.
An exhaustive review
With a rapidly evolving industry and redevelopment of the airport network underway, a top-to-bottom revamp was necessary. We conducted exhaustive site visits of 14 terminals and 17 AirTrain stations, creating a comprehensive database of over 10,000 existing signs. We also spoke to customer care representatives, security agents, and facility managers to understand the perspective of on-the-ground staff. We observed passengers using the facilities, highlighting moments of increased stress and confusion, compiling all these observations into a report for each terminal.
We also reviewed the existing manual to highlight what was working—and what wasn’t—and benchmarked similarly-sized, top-rated airports in the U.S. and internationally through desk research as well as firsthand visits.
Through our research, we found three primary areas of opportunity: reflecting a sense of place; modernizing and future-proofing the guidelines; and strengthening approachability and governance.
Designing sense of place
Clarity of information in airport wayfinding is of utmost importance. High contrast, illumination, color coding, and positioning are core elements that have little flexibility. But focusing on these alone can lead to a generic experience. Our challenge was to infuse the region’s sense of place into the wayfinding, while safeguarding these core functional elements.
Our design team created a system to impart the bold, energetic, no-nonsense personality of the New York/New Jersey region together with its punchy, energetic side. As the entry and exit point to the region for residents and visitors alike, the airports are just a portion of one’s transportation experience. We aligned the airports to the region’s iconic transit vernacular to create a seamless, holistic journey. To that end, we commissioned a custom, backlit-optimized version of Helvetica Now and created a set of pictograms to match.
We also designed a distinctive, faceted sign box elevating signage from flat graphics to dimensional blocks of color, recognizable from more angles. They act as beacons to connect people to their destinations, enabling quick, subconscious recognition.
Critically, we went beyond aesthetics to improve the backbone of the wayfinding experience. A harmonized, airport-wide gate numbering strategy serves as an intuitive positioning tool. This helps users—especially connecting passengers—navigate the entire journey, from A10 all the way to E45. We defined a destination-focused information strategy to help users find destinations based on common terminology.
In our revamp, we wanted to develop lasting, relevant guidelines. A grid-based, modular sign system now allows for precise sizing and scale of any element. This ensures that design teams implementing the system can do so consistently across disparate conditions. The standards were developed to provide a unified system across facilities; individual terminals will inevitably need new designs for unique situations. The modular grid system eases the development of new sign types that integrate well with others.
We expanded guidance on digital technologies, anticipating that digital signage will be increasingly commonplace. We took care to keep the guidelines technology-agnostic—we did not prescribe specific digital touchpoints, but developed a flexible system to accommodate existing and future platforms, from OLED screens to wearable technology.
To support successful implementation, we included a more robust yet approachable background on wayfinding. The new manual provides not just technical specifications, but easy-to-understand explanations of the concepts behind the system.
We significantly expanded resources on typically-invisible elements of wayfinding to make them more understandable. We included information on foundational concepts like the wayfinding journey, inclusive design, and natural wayfinding; we also included strategies on spatial zoning, numbering, terminology, and information hierarchy. We updated tips on applications and approvals, clarifying the steps necessary to implement and maintain the wayfinding.
We conceived the new manual as a digital-first online manual, providing easier access on any device to a range of stakeholders. This format encourages iteration and ensures that it can be easily updated. It serves as the singular hub for the latest guidelines, assets, and resources.
The result is an easy-to-use, comprehensive wayfinding manual that sets a new standard. It includes core principles and strategies as well as detailed guidelines and specifications, providing everything needed to implement and maintain an exceptional wayfinding system across Port Authority airports for years to come.
The design system was officially released to terminal operators, developers and designers in July 2020. The manual has been embraced and applauded for its clarity, comprehensiveness, and design sensibility. In the coming years, the standards will be rolled out in accordance with the redevelopment plan, starting with the new Terminal A at EWR to be completed in 2022. It will be the first new terminal to incorporate the fully internally-illuminated sign system. Terminal operators have already begun using the new standards for temporary signage during construction.
Port Authority of New York and New Jersey
New York & New Jersey, USA
• Wayfinding standards manual
• Wayfinding strategy
• Graphic design
• 3D design
• Digital design
2021 SEGD Honor Award (Strategy/Research/Planning category)