Questions and Answers about wayfinding and our new book, Directional Sense – How to Find Your Way Around.
Q: I’ve been to my local airport a million times, but if I get in at a gate I’m not familiar with, I don’t know which way to go – left or right to the terminal? – because there’s no sign. Is there something wrong with me? (I know other airports that are really user friendly, including Atlanta, Minneapolis, and Phoenix.)
A. What you’re asking for is perfectly reasonable. Once you have exited the plane and are in the boarding/”de-planing” area, a sign should be in view that clearly informs you which way to go for the terminal, baggage claim, restrooms, etc.
Q. Here’s what frustrates me. . . Those roundabouts that they’re putting up now, they don’t tell you that they’re going to be there and then you suddenly come upon them and you don’t know what to do. Why don’t they warn you beforehand?
A. You’re right. An “advance notification” sign should be provided a quarter of a mile or so before the roundabout. This type of sign is needed prior to roundabouts and major intersections. For roundabouts, these signs often have an icon or symbol. Unfortunately, these symbols may not communicate clearly to all drivers.
Q. My biggest problem with directions is that I never know where north is. I don’t know how to learn this. How can I find out?
A. There are both high-tech and low-tech solutions. The lowest-tech solution is to use the position of the sun, which rises in the east and sets in the west. But if it’s not possible to see the sun, you may need to try something else. Another low-tech solution is to purchase an inexpensive compass for your car. These are usually available at auto parts’ stores. Install one and you’ll always know the direction you’re heading. Car compasses can be especially useful if you’re directionally challenged and resist using cardinal directions (North, South, etc.). For a high-tech solution, smart phones, like the iPhone, have free compass apps available. The phone compass will point in the direction you’re heading. For instance, If you’re holding the phone in front of you as you walk or ride, and it points to “S” or “South,” you’re heading south. Say you need to be traveling on I-95 S and your car compass says “N”. You’re probably going the wrong way and need to turn around. Keep in mind that roads with N, S, E, or W as part of their names/numbers, like I-94 W, don’t always head perfectly in that direction (“due west”). That is, your compass may show that you’re sometimes going south or east, especially if the highway encircles a town. But overall, if you’re on I-94 W, you will be going west.
Q. I was so frustrated on a recent trip where many of the familiar stores and restaurants had been torn down and replaced with new ones. My landmarks were gone!
A. That can be really disorienting and disturbing! It’s often confusing to try to find your way in a place that you thought you knew or you once knew – and that has since changed – because you expect that your landmarks are going to be there and you expect that you are going to know how to find your way. In fact, this tends to be more confusing than finding your way around a new place where you don’t expect to be able to easily find your way because it’s unfamiliar to you.
Q. What trips me up sometimes is meeting someone at a landmark we both know, but he’s at the front door and I’m at the back door. How do you solve that problem?
A. You just have to be as detailed as possible when making your plans. If you know there are two entrances, or a building has frontage on two or more streets, you need to agree on the specific entrance, or the entrance on a specific street. If you still don’t see your friend at the appointed hour, give him a call!
Q. Even my husband, who can find his way anywhere, has trouble with roundabouts. We were in one once and we wanted to find the expressway, but we couldn’t tell which way to go. Was it us?
A. Sometimes the signs, the surrounding environment, and the roundabout are all just too confusing for drivers who are unfamiliar with that particular place. However, it’s also possible that the signs are not clear enough. The roundabout you and your husband experienced probably needed more or better signs for each exit. Or, if there were plenty of signs containing the right information, they might have needed to be located differently so you could easily tell what each of them referred to.
Q. Do many people who are directionally challenged have trouble telling right from left immediately?
A. We don’t have good statistics about directionally challenged people, but having a hard time distinguishing right from left seems to be pretty common. A useful trick is to hold up your hands with the back of your hands facing you and your thumbs pointed toward one another. The left hand will form a “L”.
Q. Do compasses always point north?
A. You’re not the only one who wonders about this. Compasses point in the direction you’re facing, assuming the compass is in front of you. If you’re facing “due” (exactly) north, it will point north. But if you’re facing west, it will point west, etc. If you are facing west and want to go north, an analog compass will show you which way that is (about 90 degrees to the right).
Q. When I’m asking directions, say, at a gas station, and the attendant says, “Go right,” I’m facing him so it looks like he’s pointing left. Which way should I turn?
A. This is a great question, since it’s a common situation. To avoid confusion, rather than facing the person who’s giving you directions, stand next to him. That way, his right will be your right.
(And write down the directions as they’re being given to you, so you won’t leave out any of the recommended steps.)
Q. Why is it so hard to get back once you’ve gone somewhere?
A. Reversing directions is especially hard for directionally challenged people. The view looks different as you travel the opposite way and the light may be different too: that is, you may have gone to your destination during the day and you’re returning at night. If you’re using online directions, be sure to print out reverse directions before you depart. If you’re using directions from a friend, ask for reverse directions too, just in case. There can be many rights and lefts in a trip, and trying to keep them straight in your head can be confusing. It’s best to write them down.
Q. I have trouble with printed maps. I often wish I could just turn them around.
A. You can and should do this! The labels may be sideways or upside down, but that’s OK. You should always “orient” or rotate your map so that the place names that are “up” on the map are straight ahead of you.