We’re excited to welcome Alex de Lorimier, Project Director at Entro. Although he is new to Entro as an employee, Alex is no stranger to us. We had the pleasure of designing signage programs for his projects when he worked on the client side, managing infrastructure and wayfinding initiatives for the Greater Toronto Airport Authority (GTAA) and before that, Metrolinx’s Union Pearson Express. We asked Alex a few questions to get to know him better, and to find out what we can learn from his experiences.
You’re an urban planner by training – what drew you to become interested in wayfinding?
I’ve always been interested in how cities work, and I gravitated toward wayfinding as part of how I experienced cities even as a kid. As a family, we travelled all over the world – my parents were diplomats, and I had lived in six different countries by the time I was 18. I was always good at directing myself, even helping my parents to navigate. I remember figuring out how to use the Paris Métro when I was really young, and helping my family find places when city names on signs and maps changed according to regional languages. Without knowing it, I intuitively created mental maps of my surroundings, getting a feel for what street layouts work, and what layouts are innately disorienting. I always noticed signs, remembered them, and I loved maps, especially the paper ones. I also realized that there’s an art to giving good directions.
You’ve worked on large-scale airport and transit wayfinding projects. In particular, at Metrolinx you managed the development of the wayfinding program for Union Pearson Express, the airport rail link from Toronto’s Union Station to Pearson International Airport. What were the wayfinding challenges and priorities you encountered?
This was an interesting project, because it involved two very different organizations working together for the first time – Metrolinx manages GO Transit, a regional rail and bus network, and the GTAA runs Toronto Pearson International Airport. Each have different users and needs, different design standards, and unique organizational and wayfinding cultures. Whereas GO serves mainly daily commuters, the GTAA serves tourists and other travelers unfamiliar with the city.
Concerns arose in terms of signage – how it should be branded, what the messages should be – and also in terms of the extent to which UP Express construction would disrupt the airport and compete with parking and other existing transportation services.
We needed to figure out how to integrate the two organizational cultures to establish trust and facilitate decision-making. The solution was largely interpersonal. It was about creating opportunities for staff to get to know each other, build rapport, and eventually collaborate to merge policies and conduct familiarization and safety training together.
For UP Express signage at the airport, we decided to use “train to city” to identify the new service and its function to travelers, rather than relying on branding/nomenclature that may be unfamiliar to first time users.
After completing the UP Express project for Metrolinx, you moved over to the GTAA. In your opinion, what is the key to a good airport wayfinding program?
I love airports – probably from traveling so much as a kid. I enjoy the complexity of the situation – needing to move large groups of diverse people through complicated flows (and as a three-sector airport Toronto Pearson is one of the most complicated!). People are often experiencing negative emotions and anxiety, and wayfinding can make a huge difference in relieving these feelings. It’s important to keep messages simple and universal. Consider how to reduce text and rely on pictograms, but not too much – a proliferation of unclear pictos can cause confusion! Sign placement is key. They must be highly visible – which can prove difficult in certain architectural environments – and provide the information people are looking for. Flexibility is another important factor, with airports having to constantly reinvent spaces to accommodate ever-changing passenger flows, travel requirements and safety considerations. Entro, as our wayfinding partners, help us overcome these challenges.
With that said, as wayfinding designers, we must always work within the client’s built and policy environments. And there is only so much wayfinding can do to clarify a confusing and overly complex process or architectural layout.
Having worked on the client side, what did you find was most important from a client’s perspective when it comes to wayfinding?
It’s important for design consultants to really understand their client’s needs and organizational culture. And to keep these factors in mind when developing solutions and communicating them. Try to speak your client’s language, and remember always to bring your design rationales back to the project’s larger goals as identified by your client. Understanding the client’s internal dynamics is key and you need to get a good grasp of who is calling the shots and what barriers might be in their way. Cost is also a major concern on the client-side, so be sensitive to this and make responsible recommendations about where your client can save, and where they should spend.
Where do you think wayfinding innovation is headed in the future?
Wayfinding on digital screens is something I tinkered with myself while at Toronto Pearson, but the technology just wasn’t there yet. Ideally we would come to a point where we understand the main flows at a particular point in time and can modify the messaging dynamically to meet the needs of the immediate users. In conjunction with passenger counting and dwell management systems, dynamic wayfinding would unlock opportunities for improved customer service and higher revenue for airports by reducing anxiety and maximizing the idle time passengers spend in airports.
Read Alex's bio here.