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Information design, architecture and making buildings readable

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What can information designers learn from the way we navigate physical places, ? And what can architects learn from the way we read text? They frequently use metaphors from each other’s domains: information designers speak of user journeys, and navigating a document or a website, as if it were a spatial environment, while architects speak of reading a building, as if it were a message. This article explores parallels between physical and textual space, and various sources readers of either can draw to make inferences about their structures.
Information design, architecture and
making buildings readable
Robert Waller
Sign designers are convinced that architects don’t like them. They complain
of being called in at the last minute, when it is too late to integrate the
signs into the building, or of finding there is no suitable place to which
they can actually attach the signs. Or they find themselves being briefed
to develop signs that are effectively invisible – small grey ones, or even
transparent ones. Tellingly, the sign outside the Royal Institute of British
Architects headquarters in London is made from glass, for fear of obscuring
the building beyond. This theme is reflected throughout Edo Smitshuijzen’s
Signage design manual1:
“[Architects] perceive signage as an assault on the aesthetics of their creation
and as an insult to the self-evidence of their spatial design. A lot of them carry an
almost sacred but entirely unfounded belief in the functionality of their ‘wordless’
buildings” (page 13).
In Learning from Las Vegas, Robert Venturi and his co-authors2 attribute this
preciousness to modernism:
‘The integration of the arts in Modernist architecture has always been called
a good thing. But one did not paint on Mies. Painted panels were floated
independently of the structure… The diminutive signs in most Modern
buildings contained only the most necessary messages, like ladies, minor accents
begrudgingly applied.’ (page 7).
There is merit in the idea of transparency. It would be good news if
buildings or sites were more self-explanatory and so required fewer signs,
and less cognitive effort on the part of the user. But the public building
that truly works without signs is elusive – there is probably a limited
set of building types that can genuinely self-explain. Their function will
be restricted largely to insiders, with few visitors; they will be highly
conventional in the way space is organised; the cost of failure must be
low (you can afford to fail to find the entrance to a museum, but you had
better find the hospital emergency room quickly); they will probably have
a simple memorable form; and the outside shape will reflect the internal
organisation of space. I think I’ve just described a church.
1 Smitzhuijzen, E. (2007). Signage Design Manual. Baden: Lars Müller Publishers.
2 Venturi R, Scott Brown D, & Izenour S. (1977). Learning from Las Vegas: the forgotten symbolism of
architectural form. Revised edition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
This paper was first published in
Eye magazine, issue 80: 90–91.
It can be found online at:
The illustrations did not appear in the
original article for reasons of space,
but were published on the Eye blog:
This version is identical to the
published version, but includes
footnotes that were omitted there.
Contacting me
My current contact information is at which also holds a
short biog, links to other publications
and my blog.
Below: Signs as ‘minor accents
begrudgingly applied’ – you have to
almost walk through this door before
you find out where it goes.
Robert Waller • Information design, architecture and making buildings readable • 2011 2
Top left: Royal Institute of British
Architects, Portland Place, London.
This transparent sign perfectly shows
off the appearance of the building
while barely murmuring its identity.
Top right: 88 Wood Street, London
(Richard Rogers Partnership, 1999).
Users are in little doubt about the
location of lifts or stairs here, but truly
transparent buildings are rare.
Right: ICMA Centre, Henley Business
School, University of Reading. Even
the most beautiful of buildings
are overlaid with health and safety
notices, applied without specification,
even though they are mandatory and
inevitable. And failures in architectural
transparency are soon remedied by
temporary signs.
Robert Waller • Information design, architecture and making buildings readable • 2011 3
Even if they do perfectly communicate their function, most public buildings
get reconfigured and repurposed during their life – a challenge that
document designers don’t face.
In his classic book on this theme, How buildings learn,3 Stewart Brand says
‘In wider use, “architecture” always means “unchanging deep structure”.
It is an illusion. New usages persistently retire or reshape buildings.’
So even if form does follow function, function changes, and, as Brand
‘Often information… is a cheaper fix than physical correction…
The countermanding sign is an example of the way most problems are handled in
buildings once they’re occupied.’
That words, whether in signs or captions, are an admission of failure
seems to be quite a common belief – the utopian vision of universal
communication is largely pictorial (viz. numerous discussions of data
visualisation). But language is the supreme human ability. I am happy to see
words on the door if avoids the humiliation of trying to push when I should
have pulled. And I would rather see the word ‘Paris’ in a film if it averts the
accordion music.
Reading a building
What can information designers learn from the way we navigate physical
places, whether Las Vegas or anywhere else? And what can architects
learn from the way we read text? They frequently use metaphors from
each other’s domains: information designers speak of user journeys, and
navigating a document or a website, as if it were a spatial environment,
while architects speak of reading a building, as if it were a message.
When, following Kevin Lynch’s seminal The image of the city,4 we speak
about legible environments, we’re looking at something altogether more
significant and strategic than when we speak of legible books.
Legible environments have clear pathways, areas and edges that explain a
city and enable to us to form a coherent mental model to help us navigate
it. But in print and on screen, legibility is just about how easily we can read
at the level of the word and the line. It is a hygiene factor – the equivalent
of an architect getting the right pitch for a flight of steps, or the right
height for a doorway. Unlike architects and planners, we have no word for
the ease with which we can see typographic structures: the way topics are
diagrammed through layout, the distinctions between different kinds of
content, the clear and natural flow between pictures and text. It’s a pity.
3 Brand, Stewart (1994). How buildings learn: what happens after they’re built, New York: Viking
4 Lynch, Kevin (1960) The image of the city. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Robert Waller • Information design, architecture and making buildings readable • 2011 4
The concept of reading a building can perhaps be traced to Ruskin’s
distinction between ‘three great branches of architectural virtue’ that require
of a building ‘1. that it act well’, ‘2. that it speak well’ and ‘3. that it look
well’5. He immediately opted out of developing further thoughts about the
second branch, on the grounds that ‘it is evident that there are no universal
laws’, and also because the modern observer of a historical building cannot
know the context in which the intended audience would have read it. This
is a pity, as a superficial view of what we are left with (functionality and
aesthetics) appears to ignore communication as an explicit goal of the
It is a small step, though, to a broader definition of functionality that
includes clear communication. These days, from speech act theory6, we
understand that to speak is, in fact, to act: fire exit signs are part of the act
of protection, along with the physical provision of doors; entrance signs
are part of the act of welcoming. As well as the physical work of walking,
opening doors and climbing stairs, users of buildings also do perceptual and
cognitive work – looking, matching, asking, learning, thinking, inferring.
Reading, in fact.
A naïve view of reading is that it is a linear processing of streams of written
words, in the order that the author wrote them down. While that may be
true of some reading for entertainment, almost all functional reading is an
active process in which readers search for answers to questions, and seek
to understand the whole structure before selecting where to pay attention.
Reading is goal-directed – even where readers think they are reading
compliantly, they are acting out the part of an intended reader, seeking
goals the writer has planted. Even where the topic may be unfamiliar, or key
information is missing, readers do their best to imagine possible worlds in
which the writer’s words make sense. So sense-making in text environments
depends on contributions from both the writer and the reader.
The reader’s contribution is to make interpretations not only from explicit
information supplied, but also from inferences they themselves make, from
their prior knowledge, and from their existing mental models or schemata.
The user journey when you read an unfamiliar book is not unlike that when
you visit a building for the first time. You go through stages: identifying
the book or building; finding the starting point or way in; identifying
it as one of a particular type that might conform to a known pattern or
genre; planning a strategy for using the building (which may be highly
goal-directed or which may start by browsing); making inferences about
the location of elements; or getting help from an index, a map, a signage
system or a human guide.
5 Ruskin, John (1886) The stones of Venice, Vol 1, Fourth edition. Orpington: George Allen. Page 35.
6 Austin J.L. (1962). How to do things with words. Oxford: Clarendon.
Robert Waller • Information design, architecture and making buildings readable • 2011 5
Conversations with place: the role of inference
Information designers understand that all effective communication is to
some degree conversational – writers and readers co-operate in a mutual
effort to create understanding. Writers try to anticipate readers’ questions,
and readers try to imagine the writer’s personality and motives.
Just as in a verbal conversation, people ask questions of buildings, seeking
answers through a combination of evidence and inference, as they assess
how it is organised, where the entrance is, where their specific destination
is, where to get information, or where the toilets might be. They can find
the evidence in maps and signs, if provided, but from what can they make
Inference through genre rules and patterns
One way in which readers of documents can make inferences is through
their familiarity with genres or text types. Genres are well known
configurations of information that, because they are common, have
acquired names – letter, textbook, newspaper, catalogue. Each is organised
in a conventional way, allowing readers to use their past experience to
navigate each new instance with confidence.
Genre conventions may have originated in the way they are produced, their
typical content or the way they are most efficiently used. But after a time,
it is enough just to imitate past solutions – readers will know where to find
the index, or the sports page, or the order form. They are institutionalised
and repeatable solutions to common problems. Genres work because they
conform to convention, even after the convention has lost its original
functionality. Online magazines still have covers, even though they no
longer have to attract your attention on a newsagent’s shelf.
Some buildings work in a similar way. For example, homes built in certain
eras conform to strong patterns, so we know where the kitchen or the
bathroom is likely to be. Among architectural genres, suburban homes
still adhere to convention (and are often built without the contribution of
architects), while public buildings – theatres, hospitals, galleries or schools
– are much less likely to place such value on conformity.
Christopher Alexander’s concept of ‘pattern language’7 is perhaps
an architectural equivalent to document genres, but less uncritically
conformist. Pattern languages identify and give names to common design
problems, and list optimal solutions, both at the grand scale (towns)
and the humble (shelves). There are areas of information design that
7 Alexander, C, Ishikawa, S, & Silverstein, M, (1977). A pattern language. New York: Oxford University
Robert Waller • Information design, architecture and making buildings readable • 2011 6
explicitly draw on pattern language as a methodology. Interaction design,
in particular, has too short a history for many genres to have developed
naturally, and the concept of pattern language has been used in that
community as a way to share learning from experience and to create
Inference from aordances
Most designers will be familiar with the concept of affordance,9 a
psychological concept that influences both architecture and information
design. The word describes the ability of an environment or design feature
to communicate its function and encourage a particular user response.
Some genres may not have good qualities of affordance, but they work
because the user is literate (that is, has learned their conventions).
Documents suffer from poor affordance when page breaks occur
inappropriately (for example, when the topic appears to have finished but
has not) or where hierarchies of headings are not distinguishable. Buildings
suffer from poor affordance when you cannot identify the door, or how to
open it, when there are no sight lines to your destination, or when attached
buildings only connect on certain floors.
8 See, for example, the Yahoo Developers Network (
9 Gibson, James J. (1977). ‘The theory of affordances’ In R.E. Shaw and J. Bransford (eds). Perceiving,
acting, and knowing. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. The application of this concept to architecture is discussed
in some depth by Koutamanis A (2006). ‘Buildings and affordances’. In John S Gero (ed) Design
Computing and Cognition ’06. Springer Netherlands, 345-364.
Right: Camden Arts Centre, Finchley
Road, London.
The entrance is not up the steps, as
the architecture positively shouts, but
behind the tree.
Robert Waller • Information design, architecture and making buildings readable • 2011 7
Above left: The Barbican in London is a
notoriously illegible environment.
Above right: With no obvious exit the
yellow line is an essential lifeline for
visitors moving between the tube
station and the concert hall.
Right: Two possible entrances
communicate themselves: up the
grand steps, or the glass doors in the
centre. Neither is correct - you go
down some steps to the right.
Robert Waller • Information design, architecture and making buildings readable • 2011 8
Inference from the logic of assembly
The theory of affordance has its roots in Gestalt psychology, and the
realisation that our perceptual system actively seeks form and meaning.
To give their work a sense of order and good form, both information
designers and architects frequently use modular structures. The layout grids
used by information designers are consistent vertical, and (sometimes)
horizontal points at which information may be aligned. By restricting the
designer’s options, they make layout decisions easier, and they also give
the document a visual consistency that can help the reader navigate. In
modular buildings, each floor may follow a similar structure, so users can
transfer their knowledge of their home floor to all the others. Modular
structures allow users to use the logic of assembly10 to make inferences. Our
knowledge of how buildings are made may also allow us to make further
inferences that are not dependent on grids: for example, we may expect
the toilets to be near the elevators, if we are aware that both require the
use of the same vertical service shaft. We may, of course, come to the same
conclusion without that knowledge, simply through our familiarity with a
genre convention or pattern.
10 I base this term on Gombrich’s ‘geometry of assembly’: Gombrich, EH. (1979). The sense of order.
Oxford: Phaidon, page 7.
Right: 6 More London Place.
There are no signs pointing to the
loos in this building, so we have to
find them through inference: they
are customarily near the lifts because
they share the same service shaft; and
the cleaning trolley is an extra clue.
Robert Waller • Information design, architecture and making buildings readable • 2011 9
Inference and innovation
Architects are familiar with physical constraints: buildings must be
engineered to stay up and not fall down, and however monumental they
are in scale, they are ultimately constrained by the human physique –
stairs must not be too steep to climb; nor doors too heavy to open; and
skyscrapers were only feasible once we had the elevator and the telephone.
But for architecture to be truly expressive of its function, should not
architects pay equal attention to the ability of users to do cognitive work?
After all, mere expression is somewhat functionless without a recipient to
see it and give it meaning.
This would appear to discourage innovation, since public buildings that are
usable from the start must inevitably be based on existing conventions. In
other words, they must largely be code-using, rather than code-extending.
The best wayshowing projects11 – the best-motivated, the best-informed,
the best-executed – demonstrate that, like the best architects, information
designers can work within constraints to innovate and delight without
compromising function. And they demonstrate that, because they innovate
and delight as well as inform, signs need be seen neither as a threat to
the visual integrity of a building, nor as a criticism of its ability to speak
through its visual form.
Just like handles on doors, signs should be there from the start.
11 See, for example, some of the projects illustrated in Uebele, A. (2007). Signage systems and
information graphics. London: Thames & Hudson.
... Sign designers are accused by architects of not integrating their signs into buildings or locating them in suitable places, and developing signage that is not effective and even invisible (Waller, 2011). Though often part of the landscape, too many signs have not been integrated or balanced with their surroundings. ...
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.