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What is Wayfinding?

Divers wear prismatic compasses that can help them navigate when underwater.
Traditional tools like the compass can aid in wayfinding.
Street signs in New York City are useful for visitors wayfinding their way around.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 18 August 2014
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Wayfinding is a process in which people or animals navigate an environment. At its simplest, wayfinding simply involves getting from one place to another, but it can encompass everything from walking down the street to the post office to navigating utterly unfamiliar waters. Wayfinding requires an ability to orient oneself within a space, using cues from the surrounding environment to gather information about location. Many people use this term specifically to refer to indigenous navigational methods such as those used by the Polynesians, but wayfinding can be practiced by anyone, and with the use of any tools.

This term was coined in the 1960s, and it was initially used in discussions of urban environments. In cities, people rely heavily on cues placed by other people for wayfinding, using street signs, directional signs, and major landmarks to orient themselves and reach desired destinations. Over time, the term came to be used in reference to navigating every environment, with some people claiming the term to talk about traditional navigational methods.

People can wayfind with maps, compasses, sextants, observations of the sun and stars, and the use of environmental cues like signs, rivers and streams, and major natural landmarks such as mountains and forests. With wayfinding skills, it is difficult to be lost, as the traveler will know where he or she is at any given point in time, and the traveler should also be able to correctly identify the path which must be taken in order to reach a destination.

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Some people are naturally skilled at wayfinding, and they can hone their skills with practice in a wide variety of environments. Other people struggle with the concept, often finding themselves lost or confused in new environments. Wayfinding consultants may offer advice and information about effective signage and other communications to ensure that people are not lost in built environments, and some consultants also work as teachers, leading workshops to teach wayfinding skills.

Finding the way from one place to another can be an adventure in and of itself. Some people enjoy using more traditional methods of navigation to get around, while others may prefer to rely on global positioning satellites (GPS) and other modern tools to find their way. Both techniques are a form of wayfinding, although traditional navigational practices often require more experience and skill. People who are interested in learning about the use of traditional navigational tools can take classes and workshops which provide access to such tools, along with the training to use them.

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