In the world of communication design, perhaps no word is less sexy than wayfinding, which inevitably conjures up images of dull-yet-necessary signage, maps and, well, even more signage. And yet anyone who has tried to navigate an unfamiliar airport, museum or public-transit system can attest to the power of a good wayfinding system (and the extreme frustration of a bad one). So we were interested to hear that this year's Domaine de Boisbuchet workshop series—an annual happening in the French countryside sometimes referred to as "summer camp for designers"—included a weeklong exploration of wayfinding's wider possibilities. Called "The Social Life of Signs," the workshop was led by Emily Smith, a Berlin-based designer, educator and researcher, and Prem Krishnamurthy, a founding principal of the New York design studio Project Projects, which won the Cooper Hewitt's 2015 National Design Award for communication design. Recently, we caught up with Krishnamurthy to find out what a 19th-century French estate can teach designers about building a 21st-century wayfinding system.
Prem Krishnamurthy with one of his students in "The Social Life of Signs" workshop at Domaine de Boisbuchet last month. All workshop photos by Ivy Tzai
What was the impetus for this workshop, and what were your main goals in developing it?
Boisbuchet, as a site for summer workshops, has typically focused more on product design and architecture; it hasn't included as much graphic design. One of the reasons is that most of the workshops engage with the entire site itself—and I think there's this idea that graphic designers mainly only use the computer to make things. Which is really a misconception of what we do and how we do it.
Much of my work begins with exploring particular spaces, and trying to understand how they function on an architectural and physical level—while also exploring spaces in a social and psychological manner. How does a place—whether a museum, a company, an office, a national park or even a country estate—operate? What are the interpersonal dynamics and the social systems that make a space tick? This was a really central interest, to apply such an approach to Boisbuchet.
“There's this idea that graphic designers mainly only use the computer to make things. Which is really a misconception of what we do and how we do it.”
Right now, we're working on a lot of wayfinding projects here at Project Projects. We're developing the wayfinding system for MoMA's new expansion, with Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and working on large-scale public parks in New York and throughout the country, alongside smaller commissions. When you work on these larger wayfinding projects, oftentimes just the sheer complexity of the spaces and the requirements take over. The danger is that you can get into a very functional mindset that only allows for, "How do people get from A to B in the most effective way? How do you resolve X and Y specific concerns?"
So I wanted to take Boisbuchet as an opportunity to go back to first principals, and to say, "OK, this is a chance to think about wayfinding again in an experimental and experiential way."
Can you give me a better idea of what you were working with, in terms of the landscape to be navigated?
Domaine de Boisbuchet is a large French country estate that's been subdivided many times over the last centuries. When Alexander von Vegesack acquired the estate, roughly 25 years ago, he started to add architecturally significant buildings to it. So now there are different architectural pavilions that function as workshop spaces, residences, meeting rooms, workshops and more. The portfolio of buildings is always growing.
What was really interesting to us is that the people who form the backbone of the estate are the staff. They're the people who are there for the entire summer season—whereas the workshop residents are coming there for a week, completing a workshop and then leaving. And otherwise there are tourists, who might only ever visit for a day tour.
So while there is a creative community of workshop participants, the staff are actually the primary users of the site. That was an unexpected realization. Our group of students interviewed various people involved in the site, at every level of the organization. We set out to understand the staff dynamics and how that could play into the whole identity, self-image and outward perception of the site.
Emily Smith and Krishnamurthy leading a workshop session Students collaborating on a subjective map of the estate
Were you giving your students much direction in terms of the end goal—or did Boisbuchet have wayfinding needs that you were asked to address?
No. One thing I would say about the workshop—and this might sound a little weird—is that it was incredibly empowering for us as instructors. We were allowed absolute open-ended freedom in terms of what would come out of it. On the first day, one of the students asked the program director of Boisbuchet, "Do do you have any specific expectations of what should come out of this workshop?" The answer was no.
The point of these workshops at Boisbuchet is for the process to lead the result. Mathias Schwartz-Clauss, who is the program director, said, "You know, I just hope that you guys figure out a new way to think about the space, wayfinding and the topics you're pursuing." And he also said: "I'd be quite disappointed if you came back at the end of this week having made a signage system."
It was great that he said this, because it totally freed us. We didn't have to feel forced to create a single predicable outcome. It allowed us to think about the fact that sometimes you are in a situation where you think you're supposed to make one specific thing, but actually the possibility of making something else that's far more resonant and functional in a long-term way might be very close at hand.
The workshop participants ended up developing an alternative tour of Boisbuchet. As part of the tour, Krishnamurthy hosted a mini talk show with Boisbuchet's founder.
So then how did this research and experimentation ultimately take shape into a final product?
What ended up happening was that we as a group created a new guided tour of Boisbuchet—a kind of unofficial or alternative tour, that explored the site in unexpected ways. It was a one-time event that lasted about two and a half hours. It involved not only the students but staff as well. Everyone at Boisbuchet—from the owner and management to all the general, administrative, kitchen and workshop staff—came along. We moved through different stations of the landscape and of the site, exposing stories and narratives that were sometimes secret or contentious, that were points of miscommunication. Putting it into the form of a tour allowed the group to think about it in a new way. We were trying to tweak people's perceptions of the place by pointing out problems, but we also tried along the way to suggest some close-at-hand solutions.
“The program director said, ‘I'd be quite disappointed if you came back at the end of this week having made a signage system.’”
This multipart event took a number of formats. In addition to sections that followed a more "typical" tour form, there was a short yoga class in an ill-used building (but which turned out to be great for that purpose). There was a mini talk-show embedded into the workshop, in which I interviewed the founder about his interactions in the '70s and the '80s with the Eames office, and his own research into the dark underbelly of utopian communities.
One of the students made a board game, called "The Hazing Game of Boisbuchet," which basically taught the rules of Boisbuchet to the staff through a hilarious board game. There was a new cocktail that was invented, which used an apple juice made at Boisbuchet—the only local agricultural production. Another part of the tour visited a strange site called "Trauma," a set of slightly more distant buildings that a lot of the staff had never visited but which are almost the unconscious of the site. It serves as storage for a part of Alexander's collection of design objects that he's gathered over the years. So we opened up this warehouse—almost like a Raiders of the Lost Ark moment— filled with all these fascinating objects that almost no one working there had ever seen.
One of the students created a board game to teach staff the unofficial rules of Boisbuchet. The tour also included a cocktail with apple juice made on the estate.
You're back in the office now, and Project Projects has all of these wayfinding projects. Did leading this workshop make you think about them differently, or give you new approaches to try in your work?
Absolutely. I feel like the whole experience is still percolating. But I'm sure that, for myself and everyone involved in the workshop, it will open up some of the processes by which we make things. We've created a lot of wayfinding projects; after working on any type of project for a while, you develop a methodology, you develop a process. The way you talk with clients, the way you figure out the functional requirements for a space, the way you approach schematic design, how you sketch and develop designs, et cetera.
So the workshop was a really good exercise; it reminded me that sometimes this kind of open-ended, iterative process can be useful, because rather than thinking that we know the answers and the approach, we can work with people and specific contexts to figure something new out and prototype it quickly.
There are lots of wayfinding problems that can't be solved by a sign. They might be solved by a different way of interfacing with different publics, or an alternative form of communication. There are other ways to achieve wayfinding goals than signage. It may be more challenging to track the efficacy of some of these methods, but they have a potential viability and they're definitely worth testing.
It was also a good reminder that you have the desires of a client or of the people who are organizing a situation—but you also have to weigh the desires and needs of the people using a space, which aren't always one-to-one with those of the client. A truly successful wayfinding system should respond to both of those levels. It should reflect the official narratives, the unofficial ones, the hidden desires and the conflicts—and it should nurture the process of navigation through all of this.