Wayfinding for airports of the future: part two

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Understanding the critical role that airports will play years from now and the sociocultural and technological shifts affecting airports today, experiential graphic design company Entro has begun exploring the potential impacts of these developments in relation to wayfinding and branded environments.

The company facilitated a series of group sessions with internal thought leaders and culled their experience working with innovative airports such as Changi Airport, Singapore; Chhatrapati Shivaji International, India; and Toronto Pearson, Calgary and Vancouver international airports in Canada.

Entro identified three main drivers of change — the shift by airports toward the greater adoption of the principles of hospitality; the continued focus on efficiency; and a new focus on personalization as part of the passenger experience.

In response to these drivers of change, Entro has proposed wayfinding design strategies around technology, the passenger journey, and airports as destinations. Earlier in this two-part series, PTW revealed Entro’s thoughts and strategies around technology. Part two focuses on the passenger journey and airports as destinations.

Passenger travel: a changing sequence of events

As the process of wayfinding is largely concerned with moving people from point A to point B (and through the logical steps in between), the notion that the sequence of things that one does in the process of navigating through an airport may change is of critical importance.

With the evolution of airports, the typical order – check-in, bag drop, security check, and then aircraft boarding – could change completely. For example, we are already seeing use of remote bag drop-offs and biometric screening taking place at the entry to the airport. These changes to the airport journey naturally imply changes to wayfinding strategy and affect how we must communicate to passengers along their journey – especially in a state of evolution when the experience may be quite different from one airport to the next. Another change to a passenger’s journey will likely be seen in the operational flexibility of different airport areas. The increased presence of, and planning for, swing conditions (flexible spaces) means more airport areas will serve multiple functions. Similarly, where or how passengers queue for flights will be impacted by these kinds of fundamental changes within the airport environment.

Improving navigation with early input

By being involved in the early stages of airport design, signage and wayfinding consultants are able to provide over-arching strategies that can enhance navigation, anticipate areas of improvement, explore opportunities, and establish visual standards that will help improve a user’s overall airport experience. With a holistic perspective grounded in the customer experience, wayfinding experts are able to explore and adapt methodologies and systems that offer the solution best suited to the passenger in a given airport environment. For instance, at Calgary International Airport in Canada, early involvement in planning influenced a gate-naming scheme that ensured a logical and effective order was applied to the 24 new gates and two concourses. This early planning further impacted strategies to ease congestion and lead to more intuitive navigation.

Focusing on the experiential

Landmark creation as part of the passenger journey will similarly help define airport spaces, assisting with navigation while emphasizing airport brand attributes. With hospitality as a primary concern of future airports, the aim will be to create wayfinding and signage programs that are increasingly experiential, rather than simply directional or informative. An example of this is the media installation at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in California. A series of digital screens throughout the site – varying in size and position – use a broad range of images, videos and real-time data, injecting excitement into a passenger’s travel experience. As multifunctional elements, these landmarks are also important nodes in the wayfinding system, meeting places and intriguing points of interest.

The promise of digital technology

Given the changing norms, our aim will be to take into account the collective impacts to the passenger journey as it relates to wayfinding. One solution could be leveraging digital displays for their versatility, familiarity to users, and future affordability. We anticipate that consideration will need to be made for how these displays will function as both wayfinding elements, and opportunities to support the airport’s brand. When used for wayfinding, these digital screens function as part of a cohesive, uniform system that aids navigation. At the same time, how and where tenant brands (airlines, retailers, support services) can be displayed utilizing digital technology, will need further thought.

Airports as destinations: the expanding airport and surrounding area

In many ways, airports are becoming cities unto themselves. The surrounding infrastructure of a number of airports – roadways, buildings, plazas and residences – are synthesizing into a larger, interconnected airport city. Airports could become cultural and social destinations in their own right, such as with New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. In this changing context, the challenge for many airports will be achieving the appropriate mix of air travel and alternative services, while simultaneously creating differentiation from other airports.

What’s more, airports are evolving into multimodel transit hubs, wherein flying is just one of many modes of transportation. As public transit, ride-hailing, ridesharing, and driverless cars increase, so too does the convenience and affordability of connecting between locales. With alternative modes of transportation becoming more readily available, it’s likely abundant airport parking will be less necessary, and in turn, occupy less space. This anticipated evolution in parking could create opportunities for repurposing these spaces for other means.

Layering of information

In response to a multipurpose, multi-use airport environment, it may be necessary to introduce distinctions into the signage program. This could mean a dual wayfinding system where one aspect focuses on navigation for aviation or modes of transit, and the other is intended for hospitality and urban spaces. This could mean developing multiple sets of signage products (‘layering’ signage) to support both functions or environments. This approach would need to be done in a way that each set would complement the other and operate as part of a holistic system. The signage approach for Marina Bay Sands Integrated Resort provides a concrete example of this strategy. In this instance, unique signage solutions were developed to match two very different areas: urban, sleek signage designs for the high-end shopping mall, and minimalist, modern signage for conference facilities.

Creating differentiation through placemaking

According to well-known French anthropologist, Marc Augé, places are defined as “relational, historical and concerned with identity”. In contrast, Augé submits, “A space that cannot be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity will be a non-place.”

For airports, it is essential that the physical environment be utilized to emphasize an airport’s unique positioning or brand, and elements that can give a space character or soul are introduced. This kind of placemaking is key in creating differentiation and positively influencing a user’s experience. Certainly, there are existing airports that have employed various means successfully to create a true sense of place. Such airports are Singapore’s Changi Airport, where a series of lush gardens surround an engaging central waterfall feature that pays tribute to the local landscape; and Köln Bonn Airport (Cologne), Germany, where the colorful, playful and pictographic fusion of the airport’s brand is applied in surprising and unique ways. As airports compete with one another to attract visitors, developing these distinct and memorable experiences, while relieving some of the anxiety associated with air travel, will be increasingly important to airport planning.

Airports as transit hubs

With airports transforming into transit hubs, another important objective will be ensuring a seamless journey for users as they interact with multiple transit providers. This means developing a strategy for how brands can maintain their identity as they intersect with one another. For example, at Union Station (Toronto) the TTC, Union Pearson Express (UP Express), GO Transit, and VIA Rail all have a unique identity that includes a distinct visual language. However, within the station itself, the emphasis is on providing clear wayfinding for users to access all of the transit providers. In this case, the logos are applied to a grid system that gives equal presence to each transit service.

Another strategy for streamlining a user’s airport experience could be the use of universal nomenclature, where airport-specific language for modal connections such as buses, trains, or taxis, is the same regardless of the transit provider. Providing a seamless journey from the first mile to the last mile is the basic precept of integrated mobility, which is the common goal of most future-focused transit services. Through early airport planning, rigorous consideration and analysis of user flows, and a willingness to adapt signage systems to anticipate and accommodate users’ needs, it is possible to tailor wayfinding to the benefit of all airport users.

Airports are evolving. The airport we know today will be much different in the future, with hospitality, efficiency and personalization playing a larger role in how individuals use and interact with airport spaces. As we bear witness to changes already in occurrence, we anticipate the ways in which technology, the passenger journey, and airports as destinations will affect wayfinding and branded environments. Moreover, that anticipating and adapting for change will go a long way toward making the airport experience the best it can be for all users and connecting them to place in an inspiring and powerful way.

To read part one of Entro’s article on wayfinding for airports of the future, click here.


With more than 25 years in the aviation industry, Entro has long been involved in enhancing the passenger journey through environmental graphic design at such prominent airports as Changi Airport, Chhatrapati Shivaji International, Toronto Pearson International, Calgary International and Vancouver International, among others

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About Author


Kirstie joined the team in early 2017 and brings writing, communications and client experience with her. Now an assistant editor, she produces content for our magazines and websites. Away from the office, you will find her blogging on her lifestyle website or searching the internet for photos of sausage dogs.

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