Being confined in our neighbourhoods and cities due to recent restrictions has emphasised more than ever that our environment impacts how we feel, emotionally and physically, and how we cognitively process our experiences. We move about, take in different views, inhabit and explore our surroundings differently due to the state of the world around us.
With efforts to revitalise many of our parks and urban areas, we’ve come to realise the profound and complex impact a ‘place’ has on our sense of well-being, so much so that placemaking is now an acknowledged and intentional practice. And that wayfinding – an integral part of how we understand and engage with a place – is much more than signs and arrows.
There is no single definition for placemaking, as placemaking for a city quarter is different for a park, transit terminal, corporate campus, an office floor or temporary installation.
But all these places have to do with meaning, comfort, affection, surprise, sharing, proximity, adaptability, belonging and improvisation. While placemaking has to do with the genius loci, the uniqueness of a place, a cultural and/or historical reflection, the way these features are revealed creates new experiences and connections. Design spaces must allow for reinterpretation and reinvention. In new spaces, it is through design a new narrative is developed with the hope that the space becomes a place where many people invest meaning over time.
As experiential designers, Entro’s approach for wayfinding and placemaking embraces a universal design perspective. We mean this not only in terms of accessibility in the traditional sense but also in creating a more human-centred experience that considers how people think, feel, and behave in a space. Ideally, we want to create a multi-sensory experience that encourages people to engage with the environment – through tactile experiences, sound, smell, temperature, opportunities for interactive play, and more emotive visual cues. Naturally, light plays a vital role in this spectrum of experience.
As Leo Tolstoy expressed so vividly the connection of light and emotions in Anna Karenina, when he writes, “He (Count Vronsky) stepped down, trying not to look long at her (Anna Karenina), as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.” Here, the loved one is equal to the sun, to eternal light that transcends everything. Light is the source of life and love. While literature chooses words to create images in the reader’s mind, we, as designers, create places that visitors can read in an intended way.
Illuminated Atmosphere – The Way It Makes Us Feel
Light not only attracts and guides us but also evokes an emotional response. Moreover, light can create an atmosphere, a sense of something special and ethereal, which provokes our imagination and encourages us to form memories and emotional connections with a place. Nothing sets the mood like the right lighting, whether bright and energising, soft and relaxing or even magical and transportive. An illuminated wayfinding program can achieve this effect by transforming a landscape into another realm after dark. The wayfinding program at Mexico’s Techológico de Monterrey (Tec), for example, has one identity by day, when strategic placement and messaging help visitors navigate. At night, when LED lights installed behind side panels spill their colour into the surrounding environs, “signs” become glowing landmarks that beautify and unify the campus. Illumination often accommodates change and consequently engagement and surprise; in the case of the Tec campus, the LED light colours can be modified to reflect the school’s brand or, more whimsically, the seasons, campus events, or national holidays. Furthermore, the illumination can be controlled individually to create an illuminated pathway leading to an event destination.
Lighting and illumination can play an essential role in the healthcare environment, evoking a sense of comfort and care to lift one’s mood in an otherwise stressful experience. According to the WELL Standard, light is linked to physical health in terms of our mood and perception of safe spaces and opportunities for healing.
The Planned Parenthood facility in Queens, New York, is a good example of how light can facilitate wayfinding while creating a welcoming atmosphere. Working closely with Stephen Yablon Architects, Entro integrated the wayfinding program with the architectural colour palette and the ceiling illumination by lighting designers Cline Bettridge Bernstein. Inviting and vibrant, the lighting adds a pop of unexpected brightness and playfulness, intending to lift one’s spirits and energy levels. We were careful to ensure that the wayfinding colours correspond with the lighting and architectural feature walls to help visitors identify and navigate between different zones.
A Burst of Colour
As experiential designers, we use colour purposefully not only to guide and orientate but also to foster a connection with the people who inhabit a space. Colours always create an affinity, a relationship; therefore, we often use colours on the façades and interiors of buildings with a strong community purpose. Colours can also contribute to an emotional response and an identity. By illuminating signage, we can intensify the impact of colour. Casey House, located in Toronto, is a good example of this effect.
Casey House is the world’s only independent specialised healthcare facility for HIV/AIDS. The illuminated exterior pylon sign acts as an identifying beacon and public art piece. It was inspired by the pattern and texture of the architectural design, which uses a grid of different coloured bricks and dark glass to represent a quilt. The quilt is a significant figure in the HIV/AIDS movement ever since San Francisco AIDS activists established it as a memorial to victims of the disease. To further emphasise the quilt theme, we used a series of alternating rectangles with different hues along the entire spectrum of red. This is also an abstract reference to the heart – a symbol of compassion for people and the central feature of Casey House’s identity.
In this case, illumination further achieves the design themes – intensifying the effect of the colour and texture. In addition, the soft glow of the different tints and shades radiates a sense of warmth for patients and subtly communicates the vibrancy of life; it also ‘communicates’ that this is not your typical and slightly overwhelming health institution.
Lighting the Way
Colour and light are both powerful tools for helping us orient ourselves in a space – they allow us to create a mental map and remember where we’ve been.
A good wayfinding program doesn’t rely on signage alone; in fact, we are cautious not to clutter the environment with an overabundance of graphics and messaging. Instead, we consider context and function, providing only the most direct and relevant information in the most strategic locations. Where possible, we rely on landmarks, pathways, architectural lighting features and other environmental cues to facilitate intuitive navigation.
Light is particularly effective in showing the way. We instinctively head towards a light – it draws us in, leads us through – and we can see it from a distance (the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel”). Illuminated areas also help us feel safe — because we can see our surroundings — also a carefully lit place seems cared for and well maintained.
The visibility of illuminated signage helps us create accessible wayfinding programs. Used in large-scale environments like airports and streetscapes, where people need to identify destinations from a block away, bold, illuminated signage is likely to be seen even by those with compromised eyesight. We’ve learned to consider the brightness and colour of the light, as well as the contrast of the background and surrounding environment when designing for optimal legibility. Sign placement and anticipated viewing distances must also be taken into account. Upon introducing new light rail lines, stations and service model, OC Transpo in Ottawa, Canada, needed to clearly identify locations as part of an easily recognisable, unified system. The system relies on illuminated exterior signage so tourists and residents can identify stations through consistent brand colours and the iconic red “O” system identifier, which acts as a playful beacon. Illumination of the soft white panelling or ‘lanterns’ at the primary station entrances is essential for ensuring night-time visibility in busy streetscapes with many competing light sources while infusing life — and a sense of safety — into darker, less vibrant areas.
While our eyes and brain are trained to see colour coherent (colour constancy) and full of ‘learned’ meaning, designers are aware of these factors and intentionally manipulate light and colour to organise space, create attention, guide people and evoke an affective evaluation of an environment, which is more than just an emotional reaction. From the external visual representation of a place, our work is beyond the practical task of “wayfinding” but creates an inner response, a narrative, a meeting through the purposeful use of light and colour.
All in all, these case studies showcase the scalable and flexible role of lighting in creating an effective system and foundation for wayfinding, no matter the environment. Of course, there is no universal method to approach navigation or lighting. The wayfinding systems must consider the physical environment where they will be installed, the competition for attention, the busyness of the location and actually what the wayfinding “wants” people to do. A highly effective wayfinding system also aligns with the occupants’ needs, behaviours, and experiences — connecting them on a deeper level than simply understanding how to move from here to there. This also means that each project will be as unique as the space and individuals who use them.