Link to the book:

Book by the designer, Paul Mijksenaar

It is a consensus that the at Airport, Amsterdam is one of the best in the history no matter from a point of view or user point of view. Thanks to the success of the , I personally have never encountered any trouble with at Schiphol Airport compared with other airports. What’s more, it even works on my mum, who’s originally from China and has relatively poor English language skills.

The book itself has published for a while, I just got the chance to read it from our office bookshelf recently. A lot of the principles and design credos it applies are still invaluable for the modern UI designers like me to take a look at and learn from them.

So, here are my some of the main takeaways. I hope you can get inspired as I do.

1. ‘Passengers first’ in a broader sense

It makes perfect sense that the VI system and signage are aimed for assisting passenger’s wayfinding. From an initial thought, all signage and VI systems should be legible and understood by passengers. But this is just the basic level for a visual designer. 
The next level should make all signages stand out sharply from its environment,

Thanks to layout, dimensions and colour — in an airport with a decidedly inconspicuous interior design.

A colour-coded scheme with yellow signs for everything related to arrivals and departures, and green signs indicating all other airport facilities: toilets, banks, baggage lockers and, of course, shops, restaurants, and cafés. Why not more diversity of colours?

This comes to the third level of taking passengers ( or users towards UI designers) into account as a visual designer, considering the context surround passengers. Kho Liang le, the main interior architect working closely with the graphic designers, believed that

the diversity of clothing worn by travellers coming and going in all directions would give the interior all the colour it needed.

As a result of the above , the final design result in an immediate success with its simplicity and straightforwardness, so much so that other international airports soon imitated the system either partially or wholly. Examples are Heathrow and Singapore Airports, both of which went on to add so many superfluous elements, however, that only the concept of colour coding survived.

2. The different usage of symbols

Symbols are intended as an aid for passengers who have trouble reading Dutch or English, as well as for those with a low level of literacy or dyslexia.

Symbols as pictograms to align different systems;
One most conspicuous change was the introduction of international symbols that designers refer to as ‘pictograms’. In using pictograms at Schiphol, Mijksenaar followed an international trend that was launched by the Union Internationale des Chemins de Fer (International Union of Railways), which appeared as the signage of Dutch Railways (NS) at that time. When the integral railway station was added to Schiphol Plaza, Schiphol Airport and Dutch Railways (NS) also made a joint effort and decisions to share symbols for ‘airport’ and ‘train station’. 
This is apparently a smart move to align different visual systems to reduce passenger’s confusions from transport to transport.

What I found more interesting are the two applications of symbols below. Their intentions are rare in our common sense of usage of symbols, but both work perfectly in the scenario of its application.

Symbols as visual reminders;
A separate collection of illustrations deliberately deviates from the international Public Information Symbols. Called ‘mascots’, they were designed to help passengers using parking garages P1, P2 and P3 to remember where they parked their cars. These mascots can be described more accurately as ‘visual reminders’ than as ‘symbols’: parking in the Wooden shoes section of the garage doesn’t mean you can buy wooden shoes there. Furthermore, each of the three garages has its own theme, a strategy conceived to prevent people from looking for their cars in the wrong building (a frequent occurrence in the past): P1 Holland, P2 Transport and P3 Sport.

Symbols that contain purposes;
This is probably the most extraordinary application of symbols I’ve ever seen so far. One of the more successful and often-imitated symbols is the fly in the urinal, meant to prompt male visitors to ‘aim’ better. It was the brainchild of Jos van Bedaf, the man in charge of the toilet-cleaning operations at Schiphol. When it comes to UI design, is there a way to imitate the ‘fly in the urinal’ case to help our users achieve their goals unexpectedly?

3. Legibility and prominence

With the growth of the airport and influx of travellers, the attractively simple layouts of signs had to be adapted to the increased amount of information. Here are Mijksenaar’s solutions which worked perfectly by presenting numerous informations in the same available space.

Reduce constant repetitions;
With more sections and departments growing in the airport, more information have to be added to the original simple signs. The large, eye-catching arrows, for example, had to be made smaller. However, to maintain its simplicity, Mijksenaar decided to extends the arrow area (see image below), making it unnecessary to indicate each destination with a seperate arrow:

A constant repetition of symbols needlessly muddles the overall image and , in the case of short words — with considerable distance between word and arrow — can cause confusion.

Mijksenaar’s solution to extend the arrow areas to avoid confusions

Capital letters;
Previously all signage at Schiphol had displayed only small letters, a silly idea from the 1930s that was based on the theory that lower-case letters make information more accessible. With its legibility problems, Mijkesenaar and designers decided to begin each line of text with a capital letter. For Check-in counters, departure gates used conspicuous capital letter followed with a digit. For sentences or names of destinations, capitalized first letter is used to increase the legibility.

Using capital letter or capitalized first letter to improve legibility

Size to ensure prominences;
In 1996 a considerable number of people lost their lives in a fire at the airport in Düsseldorf. An investigation showed that the reason for so many deaths was largely attributable to officially approved escape-route signage that ultimately failed to guide all visitors safely out of the building. Schiphol’s response to the tragedy was a drastic revision of its entire system for indicating escape routes

Firstly, Schiphol reserved the colour green exclusively for the indication of escape routes. Instead of putting green escape signs within the same chunk, the escape sign was taken out to be stand-alone for a prominent view. What’s more, the green sections next to yellow signs ‘grew’ in the same size to guarantee them equal prominence (see image below).

The escape-route signage is equal size as the other information board

4. Color choices and contrast value

A high contrast value;
Undoubtedly as discussed at the beginning, symbols and words need to stand out. It’s not only about the background color itself need to have a clear contrast from its surroundings at the airport. The lettering itself must also contrast sufficiently with its colored background. Black letters on white paper, exemplify a perfect contrast. Designers have tried multiple color combinations in order to choose the right contrast of color. All examples in the row of a’s shown below to represent color scheme used at Schiphol have a contrast value higher than 80 percent.

The contrast of lettering on their backgrounds

Limited colors;
What’s more, the number of colours should be limited, since people have difficulty distinguish certain shades placed close to each other (eg. yellow and orange, orange and red, light blue and dark blue, etc.). For this reason, designers didn’t use such color combinations on the same sign or display. There are also dedicated organizations with an interest to improve accessibility of information for visually impaired that provide the color choice advices.

5. Maps in the right way

Choosing the right map for the right purpose;
Maps are a useful way to give visitors an overview of certain areas. However, maps can be so different in it’s layout and perspectives and designer need to choose the right map for the right purpose. Examples are maps of parking-garage layouts, a map showing the location of business lounges operated by various airlines, and a map clearly indicating the most important walking distances at the airport, etc. Certain maps are drawn in perspective (distorted bird’s eye view), sometimes with points of reference, such as the control tower; others are flat diagrams as seen directly from above (2D bird’s eye view).

There are also two types of maps: maps you can take with you and maps permanently installed in the building. We see countless large maps located throughout the terminal, often in combination with paper ‘take-away’ maps, interactive displays and holders for brochures.

It is not only about drawing a map for the airport or in other design cases for a destination or place, it is about guiding visitors to the right place.

Science of maps;
Just some interesting science of maps mentioned in the book:

  • In the case of two-sided maps, each side must be a mirror image of its partner. The same logic applies to maps positioned at a right angle, which also require visual adaptation. In certain cases, therefore, it’s necessary to produce four versions of the same map.
  • Ergonomics has proved that permanent maps installed in a building should be positioned in such a way that things which appear on the left or the right of the map are physically to the left or the right of the person viewing the map. Generally speaking, the inexperienced map reader finds it difficult to turn the diagram around in his or her mind and make it correspond to reality.
The example of the science of ergonomics of the permanent maps

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