The type writer: Typography of wayfinding apps

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With digital advancements determining the future of wayfinding apps, Bruno Maag explores the typography journey through transport and technology

We navigate our environments through mapping apps on our phones and tablets. When used on-the-go, these wayfinding tools are often operated while trying to navigate in a new environment, through crowds of people or traffic. They also act as tourist guides, restaurant reviewers, and recommend bars, museums and myriad other experiences. The app has to be easy-to-use and accessible to people of all ages, demographics and cultures. That is a challenging design problem.

A core element of all successful wayfinding is good typography. Specifying the right typeface, with the right balance of legibility and efficiency, is vital for digital maps and wayfinding. There is also tone of voice and user expectation to consider – your favourite mapping app may not be as effective if the type was set in a comic book or fraktur style.

While we currently use these apps mainly on handheld devices, this could soon change. The emergence of augmented reality (AR) is a logical step forward, and brings a world of new possibilities for wayfinding, but requires typographers and type designers to solve new problems.

The biggest challenge for wayfinding apps in AR is the constantly changing point-of-view and background. This could be overcome with responsive typography, that continuously and dynamically alters the proportions, weight and design features of the letters, to give the user the best possible view of signs and directions as they navigate around an environment. This is where emerging technologies such as variable fonts are able to help.

Confident wayfinding in a digital environment relies on the correspondence between physical landmarks and digital labels; there is an opportunity for a more integrated approach, where physical and digital wayfinding are designed together to enhance the user’s experience. Typography is, and will remain, a fundamental element of wayfinding and we relish the emerging design challenges, regardless of the route.