Improving wayfinding in complex environments: The case for dynamic signage

The increasing sophistication of automated building systems has allowed for opportunities in the improvement of wayfinding using dynamic signage in complex, changing environments.


Learning objectives

  • Understand the limitations of traditional static signage and how it can be improved.
  • Know the key elements and mechanics of dynamic signage.
  • Learn how dynamic signage can improve wayfinding in complex or unique environments. 

Exit marking has been an important part of life safety design since the 1930s, when the NFPA created a committee on life safety and began developing strategies for occupant egress in response to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in downtown Manhattan. Only minor changes have been made to standard exit signage and exit marking since then, despite improvements and increased sophistication of building technologies.

Dynamic signage offers many new improvements to wayfinding and goes beyond what traditional static signage offers in complex and unique environments. 

Traditional versus dynamic signage

Standard practice as defined in NFPA 101: Life Safety Code, the International Building Code (IBC), and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 7010 typically dictate that effective wayfinding performance is dependent on visual-spatial features including simplicity, occupant familiarity with the building, visual access, proper signage, and architectural features. Standard signage is obviously an important architectural feature for exit identification, but multiple factors can decrease its effectiveness. Designers often make assumptions based on conventional buildings that do not consider the complexity of a nontraditional design. In these cases, traditional exit signage may not meet the designer's intent where occupant reaction to alarms may differ from that in a more traditional setting, occupants are unfamiliar with the building, or the route to the exit is more meandering than in a traditional design. Also, exit signage requirements in fire and building codes typically assume a more traditional design and do not consider a building's complexity. Exit signage requirements are often static and do not differentiate between simple and complex buildings.

Traditional exit signage lacks the ability to adapt to changing environments or emerging threats that may occur in complex occupancies, such as airports, train stations, or other large assembly areas. What might be a safe, useable egress route at one time might be blocked or impaired during an emergency. Recent events have shown that these types of occupancies are increasingly becoming targets for terrorism and other types of attacks, leading to the increasing frequency of large-scale evacuations. Since 2010, there have been more than 25 reports of events necessitating full airport-terminal evacuation worldwide, largely due to security threats. In the U.S., reports of mass confusion and chaos were reported for separate incidents at the JFK Airport in New York in August 2016 and LAX Airport in Los Angeles in September 2016, showing that the exiting and wayfinding systems in place can be improved.

Figure 1: An open floor plan of Sky Central Building located in Isleworth, U.K., with several open stairs connecting multiple floors. Courtesy: ArupExamining human behavior during an evacuation shows why traditional exit signage is not typically effective in reducing mass confusion during such events. Exit signs are routinely ignored during an emergency, with many occupants overlooking secondary egress routes and exiting through the route in which they entered the building. This phenomenon is especially pronounced in buildings where occupants are unfamiliar with the building and exit locations. Studies have suggested that occupants involved in a fire emergency, who may have high stress levels and are attempting to process large amounts of information quickly for self-preservation, will often filter out information regarding exit signs that would have helped them reach the closest exit. Many occupants will not actually perceive exit signs in their field of vision due to what has been called "learned irrelevance," in which people continually exposed to a visual cue for which they would not ordinarily respond to are cognitively trained to ignore the cue.

Research has also demonstrated that more detailed instructions with specific locations on exit locations can have a significant impact on lowering egress times. One investigation commissioned by the University of Venice and the University of Padova in Italy compared the behavior of occupants when trying to reach an area of refuge when given no instructions, versus occupants that were given detailed instructions. Occupants not given instructions tended to egress toward the familiar route through which they entered the building. Occupants shown specific signs indicating the location of the area of refuge could promptly identify the proper direction and begin to move toward it. The study confirms that giving specific instruction creates a change in evacuation behavior toward using a more effective exit path over using the most familiar route.

Intelligent active dynamic signage can provide a solution to the learned irrelevance problem while also providing specific instructions or exit cues in a way that traditional exit signage cannot. By its nature, a dynamic sign that is constantly updated with new information is expected to grab the attention of occupants more effectively than a static sign that occupants have been cognitively trained to ignore. Also, an effective dynamic signage system will gather information on the conditions in the building, including the presence of hazardous conditions that may block an egress route. The system can then redirect occupants in real time to the most effective exit locations. 

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