The Subconscious Cues That Guide Visitors Through The World’s Busiest Airport

In a recent blog post for The Atlantic, David Zweig spoke with wayfinding expert and airport-sign designer Jim Harding about his work on the world’s busiest airport, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson. According to Hartfield, the highest mark of success in Harding’s work is invisibility: if his job is perfectly executed, “you will never think of him or his work.” In Harding’s work, no decision is arbitrary; even the tiniest aesthetic choices are part of a carefully orchestrated ballet, subconscious triggers that point the visitor in the right direction without them even realizing that they are being guided. Even something as seemingly minor as the shape of a street sign takes on great weight:

When undertaking a major wayfinding project like the one at the Maynard Jackson Terminal, as the ripple effect on the maps shows, everything outside the core area must be tied in to the master plan. On the roads encircling Maynard Jackson the top of every street sign related to the terminal has a slightly curved edge, echoing the gentle undulating aesthetics of the terminal’s roofline. It’s a subtle, likely subconscious wayfinding cue, letting you know you are in the vicinity of the international terminal. Many of the interior signs share this shape as well. This distinguishes the area from the domestic terminal and concourses, where all the signs are a standard rectilinear shape. If you are ever in an airport or campus or hospital or other complex environment and suddenly something feels off, you sense you are going the wrong way, there’s a good chance it’s not just magic or some brilliant internal directional sense, but rather you may be responding to a subconscious cue like the change of shape from one sign system to another. “Signage isn’t only about consistency in terminology and typefaces,” says Harding, but also about placing the overall ecosystem in a particular frame. It establishes a sense of place.

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