2.4 million ft² existing construction
Conduct a research assessment of the Houston Zoo’s current wayfinding and strategic recommendations for an updated orientation system, taking into account phased plans for renovation.
Ethnographic research, wayfinding system recommendations, nomenclature recommendations, sign system design, sign location plan
Situated in the middle of Hermann Park, the Houston Zoo is the city’s most popular tourist destination, attracting over 2.5 million visitors annually. fig. a Like many other large campuses, the Zoo has grown up in phases over its nearly 100-year history, with multiple generations of signage creating a challenging wayfinding environment for visitors.
Guest Archetypes + Behavior
During our on-site research, we shadowed multiple groups of guests as they navigated the Zoo. Through this research, we identified visitor archetypes with differing priorities who experience the space in distinct ways. It was vital for our wayfinding recommendations to respond to the needs and perspectives of each of these groups.
SYSTEMATIZING THE ZOO
People learn how to navigate complex campuses like the Houston Zoo in the same way they learn how to navigate a new city. As Kevin Lynch outlines in his seminal 1960 book The Image of the City, we can understand complex environments like cities as an overlapping and interacting series of paths, districts, edges, nodes, and landmarks. An effective orientation system leverages these existing conditions to eliminate extraneous signage and provide information at junctures where people naturally seek it.
We studied how these five elements function currently on the Houston Zoo campus, as well as how they will change once the first phase of the Zoo’s new master plan comes to fruition.
Paths are the predominant element in guests’ wayfinding experience at the Houston Zoo.
Edges can be considered as physical barriers, as persistent conditions that guests can follow along, or as metaphorical boundaries between zones.
While edges themselves are not paths, they can run adjacent to paths and aid in reinforcing a particular sense of place.
Nodes are naturally-occurring decision points or intersections where guests are likely to seek out re-orienting information.
Nodes offer a natural opportunity to inform an efficient orientation system that provides guests with the information they need, when they need it, without over-signing.
Nodes should inform guests of key information while also encouraging them to keep moving—they should not be treated as a resting place.
Landmarks often arise organically—physical features that can be easily pointed out because they happen to be tall or colorful, for example—or they can be purposefully added or punched up to become more imageable.
WAYFINDING SYSTEM RECOMMENDATIONS
Based upon our field work and subsequent close reading of the Houston Zoo campus, we proposed a wayfinding system based upon the following principles:
LEAD WITH PATH AND DISTRICT
Paths should have a clear hierarchy, defined by the predictable placement of signage, amenities, and other identifying environmental graphics features.
A system of color-coded districts anticipates the campus' eventual reorganization into biogeographic zones. These zones will serve to split the Zoo campus into manageable “chunks” and will aid in self-navigation and map-reading while also allowing staff to use progressive disclosure to give concise verbal directions.
Thresholds should have a consistent visual language to create familiarity around what it feels like to enter or leave a district or zone within the Zoo.