wayfinding challenge: encouraging folks to visit more than just the cathedral..


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My personal take on this is born out of 12 months curating, and managing the #cetpopup' visitor experience - we'd pulled 25,000 visitors into the building by the time it ended (16/6/18), and learnt loads about how to inform, motivate and engage audiences - with practically no budget.

No budget is actually a great discipline. It forces you to really focus down on the bare essentials of what you're trying to achieve. But there's no substitute for trial and error - getting things out there - seeing how people react to what you are saying.

So - that's my....

Big learning #1: your wayfinding solution needs to be cheap (but not look cheap - see also learning #6) and quick to deploy, and easily adaptable. You don't need to get it right straight away, so devise something that can be changed or updated quickly. You will always have a better idea, if you don't - great, but the key discipline is to keep seeing the venue through your visitors eyes. At cet, i made a point of re-walking the 'self guided tour route' at least once a day. You *always* miss something. You can *always* tweak things. Lighting. Positioning. Drama. Narrative. Even it just means listening in on folks conversations, or having a quick chat. I must have had at least a thousand conversations with visitors over the year - normally just something like ' how are you getting on with the exploring?' would give you the opportunity for valuable feedback. And look for those tell-tale signs - are your visitors bored? tired? confused? frustrated? whats missing from their experience? how could it be improved? The cet self guided tour was a massive hit with our visitors - but it took an awful lot of careful thought.

Big learning#2: comes from my background in pr/marketing - but also a passion for understanding why people do what they do.

If you're trying to win people over they need to trust you. Or your brand. Your identity. With a city, this is tricky as it's on a macro scale - but the principles are the same. Tone, feel, positioning - and as as a product, Coventry actually isn't such a dissimilar challenge to that of my getting folks interested in the cet building. On the face of it it's not very glamorous, has some crap bits, is quite run down and scruffy, - but actually there are some great stories, and some really photogenic bits, and some really unusual bits of history, art, culture that (at the cet) i've sprinkled around so that - if i get you in the right frame of mind - you'll forgive the grotty bits and overall think its great.

So.. for my marketing to work, i needed to avoid overselling the proposition (like the cet- not being a posh gallery - Coventry isn't a barcelona, seattle, or shoreditch). That means not looking corporate or overly 'designed'. These days folks are bombarded by slick advertising, and are fundamentally a bit distrustful. We all also 'tune out' incredibly quickly if something looks samey or too busy. We tried quote a few formats at the cet but quickly found that a really simple, friendly, but mostly - a bit rough and ready style worked best. My instinct tells me this'd be the same for Coventry. - and i think visitors would respond really well to something just like we had at the cet (the 'pointy finger' creative).

Big learning#3: size. consistency and placement are also key. if you want people to follow your directions, everything has to follow a consistent and uniform pattern. Might sound obvious, but put your wayfinding in an odd place (because its easier for you to fix there, or you think its where the info is most relevant) and people will miss it. Size also matters - or at least big isn't always best. We found A4 worked better than anything bigger - because its actually the placement thats more important. And small is a great discipline. And of course A4 is easy to print up, refine, refresh, update, swap out.

Big learning#4: narrative. What would sell it to you? Context is everything, and is the key to turning participation into an experience. But.. what, where and when to introduce it - thats the skill. At the cet we had 20 'info' displays. they were the same size as the 'pointy finger' wayfinding notices (btw, there were about 100 of those throughout the building - it was a long tour route, almost half a mile) however I only introduced them tho after about 4 months as it takes time to collect and work out your best stories - the little bits of info that start to draw people in to the bigger story, and make everything come alive. Info boards would work in exactly the same way for a self guided 'cov tour route' - and remember, its the personality of the narrative that is your biggest asset in terms of getting the tone and positioning right. Communicating a message that helps folks make sense of everything they see around them. 

Big learning#5: the route itself. What do people want? I actually think about this alot. Personally I get bored easily when i'm visiting a city (or visiting anything really) but i think i'm fairly typical of most folks nowadays who have limited attention span and zillions of other things competing for their time. At the cet we had a building filled with unusual stuff, but all spread over quite a big area - so lots of walking, and multiple different ways to get from point a to b. Curating a specific route - managing the visitors experience -  is the biggest opportunity you will have for enthusing your audience. Don't leave it to chance. I often tell an anecdote at this point about property development - how in the depths of the house market crash in 2011 i had a beautiful victorian vicarage id poured my heart (and money!) into renovating. Couldn't sell it. The pics were ok but didnt really do it justice. Then someone recommended i spend £300 on a 'house dresser'.. hmm. turned out to be the best cash i spent that year as in 24 hours i had my eyes opened to a new discipline that didn't leave things to chance. Her advice boiled down to creating a specific tour route through the property that shows it off to its best - and then get to work thinking about the route as a series of 'reveals'. Creating wow moments that create spectacle for the viewer - and look fab as photos. Little things like symmetry. The human brain loves symmetry - two eyes, two ears, two arms etc. so, two pictures, two table lamps. Keep the views balanced. But then dont let folks get bored - the human brain also switches off easily if it knows what to expect - so occasionally throw in something unusual. In context of cet, this might have been a quirky art display, or artfully placed artefact, or slide show projection  - but all equally applicable to a city centre tour route. 

Another important element to the tour experience is surprise - spookiness if you like. The human brain likes order, but again, it likes to also gets quite a thrill from occasionally feeling a bit lost. Those interesting looking crooked side streets that you often find yourself breaking off to discover when you're on holiday somewhere. So - don't be afraid to break up the route with a couple of little diversions that gets the visitor feeling a bit disorientated, after all, its what IKEA do with their stores - so it must work!

Big learning #6:packaging. Consider the effect of every bit of detail - and how things work together (or not). The detail is always the key. This is the massive thing i learned at the cet. Little changes to how a group of photos are displayed, or where in the room make a massive difference to the overall drama/spectacle. Packaging in context of a city tour means looking at everything with a critical eye. and prioritising. Address the basics, (main route/signage) but then prioritise the detail. What things jarr? What things dont matter so much? Start with the things that jarr the most then work backwards. Scruffy/dirty pavements - yes, problem but actually, put a small bit of art on the wall and suddenly it looks ok?. Or it might be the haphazard way bins are being put back against walls. line them up neatly and suddenly it looks artful, considered. The perception is changed. We did this all the time at the cet - no budget, so you have to work with what youve got. What's letting down this area as a spectacle? How could i re-arrange it so it becomes something that people will want to be taking pictures of? An endless pre-occupation, but great fun - because time and time again you are discovering that clever curation sells the space. And it often doesn't cost anything other having someone around who has a good-eye for what makes something look good.

Big learning#7: trust. This one is a bit bonkers, but probably my favorite as it goes against what you'd expect. A big topic, but what the learning boiled down to is this.. if folks see that they are being trusted, they love it, and reward you (or what your'e doing for them) with surprising respect. Examples? cet. Dangerous building. Lots of spaces we couldn't let people go. I tried blocking doorways off. physical barriers. Folks broke them down. Then i found a big box of 1 inch brown packing tape and started taping off areas. Very neatly. It looked good. But you could duck under easily, or break it in an instant - but folks didnt. Ever. People respected the fact they were being trusted, liked that we were treating them as adults and letting them see into the dangerous spaces. And they liked (because of the way we set everything up, and the wording we used) that we were obviously making a big effort to be inclusive, not 'arty'. Culture for the many, not the few. Same went with props (i'd brought in loads of my spare house dressing stuff) exhibits and artefacts - if i'm honest i half expected everything to go. But we had very few problems - again, because visitors decided we were giving them responsibility. But hey - whats this got to do with wayfinding? Well, the learning is that maybe your signage doesn't need to be vandal-proof if you can get everyone deciding that they like it, and that its giving them responsibility. This is really down to coming up with a format, placement and communication style that resonates with a really wide cross section of society. And there's another important point - your wayfinding execution should be as much about enthusing local citizens, as it is about directing external visitors.

Big learning#8: and finally, the last learning from the cet. Motivation. One of the big ideas i had for the cet was to ditch the barriers that stop folks trying something new, and get a new, bigger audience engaging with heritage and culture. But I also wanted to have a crack at the 'holy grail' of venue attractions - making it free admission (to get the footfall), but also getting folks to volunteer cash donations (to pay a few bills). After a little bit of research i ended up with two nuggets - using the words 'small' and 'because'. If you tell folks the suggested donation amount of £3 per person is 'small' then theres a bit of their brain that accepts this association (£3 = small) without questioning. Ok, we're not charging for a coventry tour route but the same approach can be used to offset other key objections - eg. 'i dont have the time'. Use of the word 'short' before describing the next attraction as 5 mins away, or 500 feet distant, works in the same way. 

The second word is 'because'. Study has shown that humans need to understand a transaction before they'll be happy proceeding. There doesnt even really need to be a particularly compelling reason. Apparently our social conditioning is such that just hearing or seeing the word 'because' wins us over. Our please donate notice/donation bin on the cet tour entrance /exit said 'please donate £3 because we have things we have to pay for'. - and it worked. I tried quite a few variations just to test the theory. The last 3 months we took £1500 in un-serviced donations. No volunteer selling it in. Anyhow, so what? Well, its relevant to the city tour narrative because signage will work better if folks understand the pay-off -  so for example, in the image at the top of this proposal I just say 'priory visitor centre - 1 min'. If instead, this also said 'because youll love exploring the undercrofts'  it makes the whole thing more motivating. 

In terms of practical realisation of the brief, i'm presently thinking in terms of versatile clear perspex friction fit a4 display holders that can be easily attached to railings/lamposts or screwed onto walls - however this would be part of the brief, looking for a suitable format (that maybe isn't perspex - could be vinyl etc) combining sensible cost/practicality and aethetics. A little trick we used everywhere at the cet to create stand-out, and a bit of glamour, was to put chunky chromed bulldog clips on top of things - canvasses, frames, signage. They cost 50p each, and could even just be super-glued on (we didn't - no-one robbed them). No practical function. Purely decorative. But suddenly folks are taking pictures of the space. They weren't before. Its just a bit of dressing, but it makes all the difference.

Personally, in terms of budgeting - i'm not looking for much in the way of recompense - i'd prefer to use the funding to increase the scope of the wayfinding routes (ie. come up with an eyecatching, low cost solution that can incorporate a city-wide self-guide tour route, rather than something limited to transport museum - cathedral).

At present, now that the CET has ended, I've a reasonable amount of availability - and in terms of other commitments I'd make time for the 'right' project (as i did with the cet). As i've already said, i think its really important to try a few things out rather than spend all the budget commissioning something expensive (inflexible) - so my recommendation would be devising a format that can be trialed within a couple of months (and then refined), rather than something that spends 12 months on the drawing board before deployment (ie. the july 19 deadline).