Reaching across borders

The Netherlands-based design firm Mijksenaar designed signage for Indira Gandhi International airport in New Delhi’s domestic and international terminals. In 2015, the way finding project for the Bihar Museum in Patna started together with the team of Lopez Design. Mijksenaar’s designs are based on research and 30 years of experience in a wide range of public environments: from airport to museum, from hospital to office building and shopping mall. A pivoting design principle for Mijksenaar is ‘design for all’: creating wayfinding systems for public spaces that work for differently abled people and people with all kinds of cultural backgrounds. Maki and Associates from Japan are the architects of the new Bihar Museum in Patna for which Lopez Design was engaged with branding, identity design, signage, website and social media. For the Museum, the architects designed the spaces to be naturally attuned with the experience of discovery, using the concept of Oku, which creates anticipation and contemplation in turns. The design engaged with the Museum as Expanse, Journey, Learning Landscape and Symbol of India’s past and future.

Lopez Design talks to designer Atja Apituley from Mijksenaar and architect Michel van Ackere from Maki and Associates about the development of a language for signs, wayfinding and architecture in the background of the three firms’ joint work in India.


LD: Do you find a universal sense of way finding amongst all human beings despite differences in society, geography, education and economy?

Atja: Cultural parameters such as visual literacy and level of education of course matter. But what Mijksenaar calls ‘natural way finding’ is inherent to every human being – the way all of us orient ourselves in spaces and navigate from our present location to our destination. For instance, people in an enclosed space or dense urban forest walk towards the light. People hesitate to go down to a dark basement. When there is a choice between a narrow or wide corridor, we choose the wide one. These are similarities in all human beings, irrespective of our cultural background in tune with our ancient instincts since old times. Architecture can enhance this process and is the most powerful wayfinding tool for specific destinations.

Michel: I believe there are universal elements as well as culturally dependent parameters. Numbers and symbols can be universally understood, whereas any text or more abstract depictions are dependent on level of education and common language base – hence, less universal.


LD: What are some of the major cultural differences you find that affect designing in India versus for Europe and USA?

Atja: One of the main differences in working for the Indian market compared to the West European market is the dense population. Unlike the Dutch, the Indians are used to a lot of people in public spaces and staff is readily available. Consequently, India has a cultural context of ‘togetherness’, with whole families to accompany a traveler to the airport, while the Dutch travel independently. In India, people tend to ask questions, whereas the Dutch are used to looking for information themselves. It is to be noted that in the Netherlands 1 in 9 persons has low literacy. In the USA 14% of the population cannot read. Signage design has always to take into account this group of people.

Michel: Regarding dependence on cultural parameters, an interesting example is the Delhi airport, which uses supergraphics of men and women to distinguish between restrooms of men and women. It is a great idea – however the photos selected do not clearly delineate male and female. The clothing, hand poses, and facial expressions on both sides are somewhat sexually ambiguous. The man wears an elaborate headpiece and earrings in one, for instance, which is confusing. I have hesitated slightly wondering which side is which and have also noted other visitors doing the same!

Delhi Airport: Following the cultural norm.
Photo courtesy: Michel van Ackere, Maki and Associates
(Note of clarification: these visuals are not part of the Mijksenaar signage for the Delhi airport)


LD: How does the structure of the city, access to information and familiarity with digital systems impact how people find their way?

Atja: In our complex urban world with multi-storey buildings, underground car parks and multi-modal transport hubs all kinds of strategies are needed to help us find our way. In the Netherlands, 72% of the population has a smartphone as of January 2016 giving instant access to information and wayfinding related Apps. These devices make wayfinding more and more an individual process.

Schiphol Airport. Image courtesy: Mijksenaar


LD: How helpful are maps in way finding and are people becoming more conversant with the advent of Google Maps?

Michel: Understanding a map, is in many ways, a highly abstract process; in fact, the section or perspective view is much closer to the human experience of space. It is important to orient graphic maps as per the point of view of the observer. Prior to the development of the cell phone, Google Earth and readily available mapping applications, this was perhaps more limited. People who drove a car were better with maps. Now this ability is well developed even in the general population.

Atja: Reading and understanding maps is an art in itself. Even the founder of our company, Paul Mijksenaar turns the map in the orientation corresponding with the direction of view.   Interactive maps can rotate automatically to correspond with the viewer’s orientation like the navigation system in cars.  At Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, Mijksenaar rotates the map at each location in the right orientation for the traveler. For an effective wayfinding strategy, however, aside of maps, a good signage system is needed. 

Map at Delhi airport by Mijksenaar. Image courtesy:Mujksenaar


LD: How do you find the visual culture of India, which can be fairly chaotic and disruptive, affect the way a sign vies for attention?

Atja: In India, because of the overwhelming amount of visual triggers in public space, information tends to occupy any space available rather than being structured. In Europe, Mijksenaar overcomes this issue by creating a zoning plan, where each type of information gets its own zone that is commercial free and therefore, visibility is increased. In public space in India, authorities could start with giving traffic signs their own space, create a zoning system on the streets and enforce hierarchy in information.

Michel: Color and design would seem to be less critical than location in India. In other words, finding empty space to put a sign will do more for visibility than any adjustment in the design of the object or sign itself.

During the course of our work at the Bihar Museum in Patna, there was an upgrade to the road immediately outside the airport where a series of standing billboards (maybe 1 meter high, maybe 10 meters apart) lined the road. These are highly visible, more because there is nothing around them.


LD: What are the some key challenges you have felt while designing or being involved with way finding and signage systems in India? How did this reflect in the Bihar Museum project?

Atja: Since a wayfinding project often takes months from start to finish, we felt the need to be aware of new site requirements and changes while operating on a project. Communication over a distance proved difficult. We prefer to visit the location, have direct contact with the client and absorb the environment. Another setback is not interacting directly with the decision-making party. Yet, because of the logical architectural approach, fewer signs were needed. The brand development for Bihar Museum and the way of handling the project by Lopez Design also aligned with our own tradition of ‘form follows function’, making the cooperation very pleasant and successful.

Michel: The Patna Museum is specified as an “International Grade” museum, and therefore the signage approach imitated other similar projects we have done throughout the world. This said, in India, we had to cater to the possibility of visitors who might be illiterate and also multiple languages. Beyond this, we were also aware that many visitors would never have been to any museum before, and tried to consider how that would affect the signage.


LD: What is your opinion on the usage of icons in signage in India considering the level of visual literacy and multiple languages in India?

Atja: Icons attract attention easily. They are also language independent and occupy less space. What we noticed in India is that often pictures are used as symbols. However, there is also the danger of a picture being interpreted as something specific. In Dutch parks there is often a sign ‘Dogs are not allowed ’ with a picture of a certain type of dog. People can easily say: That is not my breed of dog! On the other hand there are symbols that are recognized worldwide, like the image of a man and women for toilets. 

Michel: Icons can also be misinterpreted as in the case of Delhi Airport. In India, we have basically used a combination of graphic techniques – color-coding together with adequate space for multiple languages and simple graphics. Locations and repetition of optimal information required at different moments were considered as well.

Bihar Museum logo at entrance designed by Lopez Design. Photo courtesy: Michel van Ackere


LD: What is your learning from your projects in designing for India?

Michel: The Bihar Museum will make an interesting case study to see how effective a signage system can be. Many visitors in Patna will never have visited any museum before, and therefore will represent a very “clean” data group for testing the signage program (i.e., no prior expectations with the building type or experience to help guide them – they will be completely dependent on signage systems, and the architecture itself).

Atja: In India, we felt we could be more aware of the possibilities to make staff part of the way finding strategy. We are focused on letting people find their way on their own with the help of signs and more and more digital devices like smartphones. In India we can be more hospitable, by employing people.


Atja Apituley
Designer and Project Manager, Mijksenaar

A design and consultant agency that specializes in wayfinding , Mijksenaar is based in Amsterdam and New York. Having done projects in 15 countries over five continents, Mijksenaar’s wayfinding systems are used by millions of travelers every day. Atja Apituley is Designer and project manager at Mijksenaar and has been with the firm since 2001. She did her MSc from the Academy of Fine Arts Utrecht in 1991 and BA, Department of Graphic Design in 1999. At the University of Utrecht, Department of Pharmacy, patient education, Atja did research into pictograms for pharmaceutical use. Later, she practiced as an Independent designer from 1994 to 2001. Today she combines her creativity and analytical capacities for projects at Mijksenaar, which vary from wayfinding to visual instructions, in the Netherlands and abroad. She was Key data Coauthor ‘Zicht op ruimte’ 2013 and Speaker at conferences such as Illustration Biënnale 2012, Infographics Congress 2008. Atja was on the Selection committee for Dutch Design Awards 2008-2009.

Michel van Ackere
Associate, Maki and Associates

Michel van Ackere is an Associate at Maki and Associates, a 50-person multi-disciplinary design firm based in Tokyo and led by Pritzker Prize winner Fumihiko Maki. Michel received his M. Arch from Harvard University in 1994, where he was the winner of the AIA Henry Adams Medal and the Julia Amory Appleton Travelling Fellowship. He has been with Maki and Associates since 1997, and served as the project leader for the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania (completed 2009), the Jewish Community of Japan, Tokyo (completed 2010), and the Patna Museum, Bihar, India (completion expected 2016).


Interviews by Sujatha Shankar Kumar
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