Sign Here: Navigation Strategies of Public Transport and Art Museums

This year, to finish of my spring break, a friend and I journeyed into New York City to visit the Museum of Modern Art. Those who know me can attest that I am not a confident traveler. I am always concerned that I will make a wrong turn, I have the wrong destination, or that everything will break down around me. If I had it my way, I would never go anywhere new, but luckily, I have friends who challenge me to get out of my comfort zone and experience new places. I promised my friend a trip to the City, and I had to deliver. To ease my mind, I looked up the directions and transit instructions ahead of time, double checked them, and saved them onto my phone for easy access. I was ready to navigate!

As navigator, I managed to get us parked outside the city (with practically no issues) and successfully on and off the two trains to our destination. There we were at 53rd Street between 5th and 6th avenues, completely lost. The MoMA was there, but as new visitors we couldn’t know for certain what building it was or where the entrance was (the lack of GPS signal was not helping). I saw a doorway that I assumed belonged to the MoMA with the approximate label “Information and Research Center.” Thinking that was a specialized or private entrance, we kept looking until we rounded the block and found an official entrance. We were then quickly ushered along by staff to the ticketing agents on the other side of the building, opposite the doors marked “Information and Research Center.” We could have saved a lot of time and energy if we knew where those doors led.

Sign Variations

According to Ernest Dwight in his article Signs of the Times, there are four types of signs that help users navigate a physical space. Identification signs are used to convey the name of a location, directional signs guide users to a location using a combination of names and symbols, informational signs give relevant information, and regulator signs tell users how they should behave. Signs serve a more important function for users who are unfamiliar with their surroundings, allowing them to navigate despite having no guide or previous experience with the place.

Navigating the Metro

As a visitor of the MoMA and of New York City in general, I relied on signs. The Metro and the MoMA serve two very different functions in NYC, so it is understandable that their navigation strategies would differ. In the Metro, identification, directional, informational and regulatory signs were implemented. Identification signs told users which train they were boarding and where they were disembarking. Directional signs pointed users toward the train platforms and the street exists. Informational signs let users know when the next train would arrive and whether or not the Metro Card machines accepted bills at that time. Regulatory signs urged users to say something if they saw something suspicious. The combined use of all of these signs are necessary for the metro to function.  Users need to acquire these various pieces of information very quickly so they can assess them and then make decisions without slowing down.

Navigating the MoMA

The MoMA, also used a variety of signs, but their visual design, proximity, and scarcity made way finding within the museum difficult. Many of the signs used by the MoMA were designed to blend in. Reserved typefaces and colors are used throughout the museum in as to not detract from the artwork. In a further effort to limit distraction from the art the overall use of signs was limited. It seemed as though the museum would have liked guests to rely on the museum map instead of way finding signs, but when the map failed to provide users with the appropriate information, there was no way to efficiently navigate the museum using the available signs.

Sign Art

Interestingly, the signs that are most prevalent throughout the museum are a combination of identification and informational signs. The plaques that hang adjacent to each piece of art not only identify what you are looking at, but they also inform you who the artist was, when it was created, where it originated, how the museum acquired it, and more. Without these signs, the art could not be appreciated to its fullest extent. I think the same can be said about the museum. The MoMA should follow its own example and implement signs that combine different types. Directional signs that both point quests to a gallery across the building and inform them what exhibit it contains and why it is significant. Regulatory signs that both asks guests not to touch and informs them of how the painting will be affected by the oils on their skin. An increased use of signs can add to a museum patrons visit.

Unlike the Metro, the MoMA aims to get users to stay a while and get lost in the art. I don’t think that this requires guests to physically be lost in the building. With the correct implementation of signs across the museum, guests can feel at home. When this happens, they will be more enabled to locate and revisit a piece of art that has touched them and invite new guests for a personal guided tour. Hopefully the MoMA staff reconsiders signs and the visual way fairing techniques the museum implements during its refurbishment later this year. The only worry guests should have is whether they missed the last train uptown.