The design firm responsible for familiar signage at transit hubs around the world

Mijksenaar is a Dutch design firm that is responsible for the various "visual prompts" that are part of most airports and transit hubs across the world.
December 30, 2019, 12:00 PM UTC
Amsterdam Schiphol Airport

When rushing to a gate, a stressed-out passenger’s field of vision becomes narrower. But relaxed museumgoers tend to take in their surroundings more than the average pedestrian. And the most common question asked at any type of venue around the world is “Where is the restroom?”

These are just some of the human behaviors that the creatives at Mijksenaar—a Dutch firm that specializes in way-finding—take into account when creating the visual prompts that pepper airports, rail hubs, hospitals, and museums all around the world.

From exit signs to bathroom directions to bike parking instructions, way-finding businesses (also referred to as information designing) guide people through spaces, ideally maximizing their experiences and, it is hoped, doing so without leaving a mark on their psyche. The best signs are ones that don’t impose on an experience but, rather, enhance it.

“Way-finding is more than signs; it has more to do with human behavior,” explains Paul Mijksenaar, who founded his eponymous business in 1986 and still directs the company’s offices in Amsterdam and New York. “If people arrive at their destinations without noticing that they were helped by signs, we are happy.”

The parking lot at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport.

The process begins with a walk through a space, during which the designer behaves as a potential frequenter of the location would. “When we go to an airport, for example, we rent a car and we find a parking space, walk from the garage to the entrance, and see how the ticketing and the checking works,” Mijksenaar explains. “We [don’t take into account] the point of view of the management, because they know their way [around]. They have no idea, sometimes, of the problems that the passengers encounter.”

Most of the issues that the firm identifies are the direct results of a space’s architectural properties and could, potentially, have been solved at inception. “Nowadays, we try to be in contact with clients even before the architect is on board,” Mijksenaar says. “It’s very important that the architecture be intuitive and [flow] in a natural way because we are not architects.” For example, he says, a business owner might advise that restrooms be placed near the entrance of a space, so that people could use them upon arrival, without having to “walk for twenty minutes to find the nearest one.”

The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

But it isn’t just a property’s potential architectural mishaps that Mijksenaar has to overcome. Technological advancements have, of course, impacted the industry as well—albeit in different ways. On the one hand, new technology has rendered some static signs obsolete. On the other hand, it has functionally changed the same sort of human behavior to which Mijksenaar reacts. Most people, for example, tend to look down while walking. How can they follow signs if they’re not even seeing them in the first place?

“We cannot do anything to [take] their attention away from the smartphone,” Mijksenaar says. “That’s why architecture is so important.”

The company has tried to incorporate screens in their compendium of offerings. “Only 5% of passengers [in airports] use smartphones for real navigation,” says Herbert Seevinck, CEO at Mijksenaar. “They use them to see if the flight is delayed or they look at Facebook or Instagram.”

Mijksenaar echoes Seevinck’s point: “Smart media is very important but not specifically for finding your way from A to B. So we integrate the kind of information [they offer]: We include digital screens at gates, for example, so you can already inform the passenger of the weather at their destination or some place that is nice to visit when they fly out.”

Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport.

Whereas an attention deficit caused by handheld devices is a global phenomenon, some cultural behaviors are also taken into account when creating signage exclusive to specific countries. “We have developed pictograms for Arabic countries that are completely different from an Italian airport,” Mijksenaar notes. “At an Italian airport, the pictogram for the ladies’ restrooms is a woman with a short skirt, but you cannot do that in Arab countries.”

Other examples: Directions to a restaurant in Western locales are marked by a knife and a spoon. But in Japan, the pictogram depicts a bowl and two sticks. And reproductions of planes within airports take the form of a country’s signature aircraft.

As the world gets smaller, could we potentially be looking at a set of standardized signs to be deployed universally? “We don’t have a catalog where our clients can pick [their signs],” Mijksenaar replies. “But, of course, we have symbols or colors that we use more because we believe it’s nice to go from one airport to another and see [similarities]. But it’s a long way to go because every airport, every station, every hospital wants to have their own [signage].”

The Rozet cultural center in Arnhem, the Netherlands.

According to Seevinck, the future does, however, have some new trends in store: an even deeper embrace of technology and a subtle diversification of the business. “What I see happening for our business is a focus on these personalized tools, like smartphones,” he says. “But what I also notice is that we interact with advertising, art, branding, and architecture to determine a customer’s experience.” Targeted advertising may find its real-life match: strategically positioned ads from the same gurus who direct our every move within some of the most trafficked transit hubs and public spaces around the world.

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