• Transform magazine
  • November 30, 2022


Finding joy

Thumbnail Wesleymeyer Fra

Wesley Meyer, design director at f.r.a., discusses the new demands on wayfinding in the post-pandemic world and how this is further influenced by the advent of AI. He demonstrates solutions to these new problems in the field through a case study of his firm’s exciting work for Borough Yards, one of London’s most exciting and unique developments.

Is it possible to put too much value on knowing where you are? As designers who focus on wayfinding, we’ve easily accepted that not getting people lost (or making them un-lost) is our job. If people are finding their way from A to B, we’ve done our work and the client will be happy. We’ve accepted this for years. We’ve started to associate wayfinding with metrics like footfall and dwell time. Perhaps we’ve even exaggerated the problem a little, referring to places as ‘complicated spaces’. And while it is true that effective wayfinding is important, as a studio we’ve started to question if the way we measure results needs an update. Are we solving the right problem?

It’s true people could be lost, and navigational wayfinding is important. We’re confident to solve that. But what if we shifted the focus to people’s sense of discovery, engagement, wonder, wellbeing, even joy. With these goals, we faced an exciting design challenge: People aren’t lost. They’re bored.

That was a few years ago. Since then, we’ve come to talk about a practice we call ‘wanderfinding’. It’s a framework and attitude about how we approach a project and evaluate what’s important. It’s about creating an environment that supports A-to-B navigation but encourages and enables exploration and discovery. It’s valuing people’s emotional reactions to a space and using design to elevate their experience by enabling (and secretly encouraging) them to explore in a non-linear or unplanned manner.

Before going further, we need to establish this is nothing new. People are natural wanderers. Spend a minute studying biophilic design and you find that biologically we’re built for exploration. Read history and discover we’ve invented words like ‘stravaig’ (Scots) and ‘flâneur’ (French) that describe not only the act of wandering, but clearly tell us of its societal importance. These lines from Charles Baudelaire are too good not to share:

“For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home...”

What is new is how we feel about it today. We’ve all spent the last few years locked in our homes. Now that we’re out in the world again the expectations are higher for places. We know we can work remotely and have everything we need delivered. So why go out at all? We do so for the quality of experience and to find something new. Simply for the joy. And if places don’t deliver on these higher expectations, if people don’t see a place as a worthy investment of their time, they won’t return.

Another new thing in our lives is AI. We’ve all become accustomed to brands offering us personalised suggestions. Amazon knows what I want to buy. Netflix suggests the right show. My phone tells we what photos to share. It’s not perfect but is this behaviour becoming something we now expect from the world around us? Why should I as a visitor have to decide where I want to go when I come to a new space? Shouldn’t the space suggest what’s right for me? As new a criteria for design, wanderfinding should address this. Even without the use of such technology, can we create design for different personality types in a space, and guide them to the experiences they would prefer?

As a design studio, we see all this as an exciting challenge and one our concept of wanderfinding offers a solution too. We can see examples of this in our recent work for  Borough Yards:

Melt the Edges

Borough Yards is 160,000 sq. ft mixed-use development on the western edge of Borough Market in London’s Southwark. A new space blending cathedral-like railway arches, public squares, and secluded shopping ‘streets’. The site has five entrances, each leading to very different and distinct areas of the surrounding neighbourhood. f.r.a. took the bold move not to identify these boundaries but instead to blend them seamlessly into the fabric of Southwark. Each entrance is branded differently (or not at all). Small details such as the individual CCTV camera notices vary in every execution. The result is each entry to Borough Yards is a unique experience designed to melt into the surrounding area.

Big and Small

Most wayfinding is designed for first-time users of a place who don’t know it well. Once they are familiar with the site, they typically stop using the signs. In wanderfinding we design for both new and long-term users of a site. At Borough Yards we did this by focusing on large and small (almost hidden) interventions. When you first enter Soap Yard, you’re greeted by a four-story tall mural and one of the largest neon signs in London. It’s a big Instagram moment. But did they notice the smaller gestures woven into the brick and lanes? The broken teacup? The human tooth? The Simpsons reference? Likely all will go unnoticed for a time but, when discovered by someone who feels they ‘know’ the place, will again spark a sense of joy and discovery

So Good They’ll Steal It

Most things at Borough Yards are very much at street level and accessible to the public. When presenting our design to the client we kept getting the feedback: “Do you think people will try to steal it?” This became a core part of our process: If someone wouldn’t want to steal it, it’s not good enough. But when you go to Borough Yards, please don’t steal things.

Borough Yards was recently awarded MIPIM’s Best Urban project. It’s a well-earned accolade for developer MARK and architects SPPARC who built a highly collaborative project that allowed us to explore this idea in wanderfinding. And that’s really the point, to keep our ideas about design evolving and rising to new challenges. Maybe as we feel more confident wandering in the world, we’ll all keep pushing to explore new areas of design.