Designing Accessible Navigation:
Analyzing the Design Interventions
Used in the V&A Museum’s New
Wayfinding System


Museum viewership heavily dictates how a cultural institution presents itself to the public. The

creation of a philanthropic museum introduced the need for accessible design interventions in

order to remove barriers of access to the mass public. The instigator of philanthropic cultural

institutions, the Victoria & Albert Museum, set a standard for how accessibility could be

implemented in a public setting. This dissertation will use the lens of Universal Design to

understand the design interventions of the V&A’s newly implemented wayfinding system by


First, this dissertation analyzes the V&A’s predecessors and the ‘traditional museum audience’

of 18th and 19th century Europe. It will situate the V&A in a historical context by analyzing the

visibility of, and public reactions to the V&A’s mission since its inception. Then, it will explore the

idea of political accessibility in relation to the Victoria & Albert Museums’ mission.

Second, through analysis of the methodologies of Universal Design, Accessibility, and Inclusive

Design, this paper will look deeper into the specific practices adopted by creators in this field. It

will analyze the difference between public spaces that are created with the methods of Universal

Design, and those that are not. It will then place these design philosophies in the context of

wayfinding. It will deconstruct signage systems through the lens of Universal Design.

Next, it will identify the components necessary for understanding accessible wayfinding at the

V&A through a case study of their most recent rebranding. Using Universal Design as a criterion

list, it will assess the V&As adherence to those standards.

Finally, this paper will consider the future of accessible wayfinding in cultural institutions and its

role and importance in modern culture. Therefore, the question of the relevance of Universal

Design in public spaces going forward will be explored.

Chapter 1 – The History of the 21st Century Museum and the Idea of Political Accessibility

Museums made their debut as a slightly different institution than how they are known in the

21st-century. The etymology of the Latin derivative, Museum, was exclusively used in Roman

times to denote physical locations where philosophical discussions took place. This then

translated into titles for institutions that were akin to a modern university. It wasn't until

15th-century Europe when the word museum as we know it reappeared and was better defined

as the concept of comprehensiveness rather than a physical space (Lewis, 1999). In

16th-century Europe, the Wunderkammern or Vernunfft-Kammer, or as known in English,

cabinets of curiosities and rooms of reason respectively, started to appear. Invented by

aristocrats and the affluent, these collections of wonders served as a microcosm of the owners'

world. However, it wasn't until the second half of the 1500s that any thought was given to the

proper keeping of these collections (Harmansah, 2008). These acquisitions were considered

valuable in both an intellectual and social sense. Not only were they filled with an assortment of

beautiful and stimulating works, but they were individually curated, and therefore unique to the


However, the Wunderkammern of the 16th century differs greatly from the museums of today.

Typically tucked away in storage, the assemblages were only "open to the collector, [their]

immediate circle, and the occasional visitor who was properly furnished with a letter of

introduction" (Rodini, s.d.). Having another person view one's cabinet was a power-play.

High-value items that not just anyone could procure would be displayed and would act as a

beacon of social prestige as well as a topic of conversation at the supper tables of the

community. In 18th and 19th-century Europe, museum-type institutions emerged, fueled by

colonial expansion and the Enlightenment (Rodini, s.d.). These establishments upheld the

Colonialist ideals of acquired property becoming private property, then only those who were

invited by the owner could view the said collection. This inner-circle style viewership sparked

what is now known as the 'traditional museum audience'. Being of the affluent society, these

patrons had the luxury of free time, and therefore, time to partake in leisurely activities, such as

looking and learning from these cultural sites.

Modern-day visitor studies can help explain ‘the traditional museum audience’s’ effect on

viewership. The National Press Joint Industry Committee on National Audiences and

Readership (JICNAR) is the most commonly used socio-economic classification system for

heritage sites and museums in the UK. They group visitors into six classifications:

A higher managerial, administrative or professional

B middle managerial, administrative or professional

C1 supervisory, clerical or managerial

C2 skilled manual workers

D semi- and unskilled manual workers

E pensioners, the unemployed, casual or lowest grade workers (Black, 2005:11)

The modern interpretation of the ‘traditional museum audience’ lives anywhere above the C1

classification. However, the guests of the 18th and 19th-centuries were mostly wealthy, white,

male, able-bodied, and versed in deciphering the embedded codes of museums (Burton and

Scott, 2003). This then meant that only the ‘A’ class, both in societal and JICNARs eyes, visited

the institutions. Museums of the day catered to this audience as they were the only group who

could understand the language of the cultural site. This specific way of catering carried on into

modern museums and therefore, created many barriers for people below the C1 classification.

From architecture that is uncommon and hard to navigate to terminology unheard of by those

outside of the circle of influence, museums quickly became places to avoid so as to not risk

humiliation. At this point, class segregation was in full swing with many of the upper echelon

believing that places of cultural significance should not be sullied by those below them in class

(Burton and Scott, 2003). Not only did the audience believe this, but many of the museum

owners believed this ideal as well.

In 1851, a new exhibition sparked a wave of philanthropy in the ‘cultural preservation’

department. The Great Exhibition– the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce

(RSA) celebration of modern industrial technology and Prince Albert's brain-child– introduced

the masses to what a museum could be. With over 100,000 objects displayed over 10 miles in

what was known as the Crystal Palace, The Great Exhibition housed inventions from over

15,000 contributors, with Britain taking up about half the displays (Picard, 2009). The installation

was designed to welcome people from all socio-economic backgrounds. However, in the

planning stages, social elites believed that class-mixing would cause a "...literal revolution and

that Britain's distinct class structure would be irreparably damaged" (Pradhan, 2016). Despite

this pushback, less than a month after opening the mass population were allowed to view the

Exhibition for just a shilling, with Saturday mornings reserved for those with disabilities, and no

riots were recorded. In her article for the British Library, Picard states that "...factory workers

were sent by their employers, country villagers sent by benevolent landowners, strings of

children...[and] countrymen came wearing their best smocks..." to see the enormity that was

The Great Exhibition (Picard, 2009). The curiosity of the British population encouraged those

from all backgrounds to flock to the installation, not just those from moneyed classes. Nearly five

months later when the Exhibition found its end, it was calculated that more than six million

unique visitors found their way into the massive Crystal Palace (Picard, 2009).

After the end of The Great Exhibition, Prince Albert and his partner at the RSA, Henry Cole,

opened the Museum of Manufactures in 1852. However, before it was established as a

museum, this institution was originally branded to be a design school. In her research, Fran

Taylor discovered that “[The Museum of Manufacturers] opened in response to the fear that

Britain was falling behind its international rivals in design and creativity” (Taylor, 2016). The

founders decided the educational title created a taste of exclusion in the mouths of the

less-learned public, and the design school was transformed into a museum. A continuation of

the Exhibitions story, the Museum of Manufactures "...sought to inspire all Brits, regardless of

class status, to be educated about their world" (Pradhan, 2016). The museum started

implementing modern ideals of accessibility to keep up with the mission to inspire all. The

invention of artificial lighting helped to keep the institution open longer than natural light would

allow. Thus granting those who worked during the day, more specifically, those within the C2-D

tiers of the JICNAR system, to choose a time that suited them to enjoy the galleries. In 1857,

the name of the cultural space was changed to The South Kensington Museum, and an

additional restaurant was added to the site. The cafe had first, second, and third-class menus to

accommodate low-wage workers (V&A, s.d.:a) maintaining their own political accessibility.

Although accommodating, these segregated menus reminded the public of its social hierarchy.

On top of this, for three days a week, the museum inducted free admission, and for the

remaining three open days, the entry fee was sixpence which helped to keep the museum quiet

for the sake of student learning (V&A, s.d.:a).

In 1899, the South Kensington Museum was officially christened as the Victoria & Albert

Museum (or V&A, as it has since been branded) (Pradhan, 2016). However, in the early 20th

century, the V&A experienced a low period as it “...lost touch with its founding goals and

became elitist and inaccessible” (Taylor, 2016). To turn this around and find the roots that they

had essentially lost, the V&A brought the ad company Saatchi & Saatchi on board to design a

TV and print campaign. Compared to the V&A’s advertising today, this campaign took a step

back and focused on the more visible parts of the institution instead of the art. The strapline for

the campaign, “an ace caff with a nice museum attached” (Taylor, 2016) focused on the

approachable nature of the museum. Essentially, the promotion was attempting to strip the

derogatory connotations that the historically uninvited public had placed on the term ‘museum’.

By approaching the audience with terminology and situations they were familiar with, the usage

of slang and a place to eat, those who previously weren’t interested in the museum may choose

to visit. The most important factor in this situation is that this socio-economic group had not

historically chosen to use their free time to visit cultural

institutions. Free time was rare if not non-existent, and

was therefore used to do necessary tasks, or more

likely, to rest. By utilising the shortened phrase ‘an ace

caff’ and connecting the museum to the menial task of

eating, Saatchi & Saatchi attempted to demystify the

V&A and reintroduce it as just another place to visit.

By taking the time to understand the lingual barriers to

viewership, the V&A produced a campaign that

attracted those who were historically excluded (Taylor,


Since the V&A had forged a relationship with the

previously uninvited public, the organisation then

turned to understanding how to keep this new

audience engaged. Internally, the institution did not

reflect the approachable branding it put forth in its

promotion. Spanning over 7 miles, navigating the V&A was not an easy feat (Centre for Public

Impact, 2016). For those who had the privilege of leisure time, the same population for whom

museums were originally designed, the act of getting lost was a part of the experience.

However, for those who were conditioned to believe that ‘time is money’, getting lost meant the

potential of losing money. Over the years, the Victoria & Albert Museum reviewed and renewed

the aesthetic of their wayfinding and overall branding. Originally, the branding utilised muted

colours, serif fonts, and symbols that reflected the social elite (V&A, s.d.:b. Psychologically, this

acts as yet another barrier to the masses of understanding and appreciating the content of the

institution. The branding reflected the heavily academic and cultured society that they were not

historically allowed to partake in. After many alterations, the museum was able to employ a

system rooted in the ideals of Universal Design that created an accessible museum experience.

Chapter 2 – Using Universal Design as a Tool in Understanding
Wayfinding in Cultural Institutions

Fully comprehending the concept of creating more accessible ways for people to interact with

museums first requires understanding accessibility and its many intricacies. The term

accessibility may well have over 100 definitions depending on which context it’s placed in. It

could mean installing an elevator where once there were only stairs. It may also mean using

captions and audio on a film instead of simply audio. For this context, accessibility will be

defined as the "...qualities that make an experience open to all" (Microsoft, 2016). Therefore,

accessibility cannot be confined to just tangible limitations, nor can it only live in the realm of the

audible, mental, or visual. Accessibility is an infinite cycle of additions, subtractions, and

substitutions for the sake of all stakeholders.

However, an important note to make is that accessibility is simply a cog in the design machine.

Kate Holmes describes this phenomenon in her book Mismatch, she states "...accessibility is an

attribute, while inclusive design is a method" (Holmes, 2018:16). There can be multiple pieces of

accessible details within an inclusive design, but accessibility here is not a design practice

specifically. Inclusive design however is not a system to create a 'One Size fits all' piece of

design, it is a methodology in which things are created in a diversity of ways to create a sense

of belonging for the full range of human diversity. Inclusive design assesses the barriers people

face in understanding content, then breaks down those barriers to foster greater access. On top

of this, accessibility can also be defined as the "...professional discipline aimed at achieving..."

an inclusive design. In this way, Inclusive Design and Accessible Design can almost be used as

interchangeable entities, furthering the confusion of the exact definition of the term.

On the other hand, accessibility cannot be pared down to only attending to one group. More

specifically, design cannot be only made accessible to one section of the human population. In

terms of museum viewership, museums of 18th century Europe were only ‘accessible' to those

of the affluent and learned classes. They were designed to intrigue and invite those who were

able to decode the language of museums. However, this is an example of false accessibility.

For something to fit the definition of accessibility, it must, in theory, be accessible by all. This is

where the concept of exclusion comes in. If Accessible Design is approached poorly, there will

always be some group, some person, excluded from understanding. For example, the banning

of plastic straws has helped the world by reducing a small amount of plastic waste. This may

seem like a win-win for all who call planet Earth home. However, those with mobile disabilities,

like cerebral palsy, need plastic straws to drink without spilling or creating messes. Things that

may appear as fixes for one become new barriers for others. Accessibility cannot be an

afterthought, or a substitution, but must be implemented and researched alongside the

origination of a project. On top of this, to create inclusion and mitigate exclusion designers must

be "...including and learning from people with a range of perspectives" (Microsoft, 2018).

Moreover, accessibility must remain an ongoing and continued conversation in any scenario.

The way accessibility, inclusion, and exclusion manifest in museums are specific to each

institution. Some take the time to produce with accessibility in mind, while others create a

designed solution, then receive complaints, and only then do they take the time to substitute

accessibility changes. However, to try and say that one institution is not accessible because of

the way that they employ their inclusive tactics, is to lose the idea of accessibility all together.

Accessibility is not achieved by a limited set of actions, nor will any combination of actions

necessarily fully achieve accessibility. Accessibility is the ongoing and regularly reviewed idea

that all people should be able to access all public spaces. Furthermore, it should be said that full

accessibility is almost inaccessible. No one person or one team can perceive exactly what all of

humanity needs. When researching for a design project, or campaign, one of the most important

pieces of information a designer needs to consider is the target market. However, this market is

usually never as narrow as the researcher makes it out to be. In a society where everyone has

access to everything, via the internet, target markets become more and more obscure and

broad. One could believe that they are designing a specific experience for an able-bodied, 16 to

24-year-old female when in reality, they need to be designing for the whole population of

London. Not only do disabilities need to be considered, but the background, culture, and all the

nuances that come with living in that area. Understanding and relating to that audience requires

the perspective of multiple different groups. If accessible tactics are not implemented from the

beginning, there will no doubt be bugs and errors to iron out down the line.

On the other hand, the theory behind the term Universal Design states that if done correctly,

there is no need to re-learn and re-implement. The Disability Act of 2005 deems Universal

Design as “The design and composition of an environment so that it may be accessed,

understood and used in the widest possible range of situations, and without the need for

adaptation, modification, assistive devices or specialised solutions” (Dáil Éireann, 2005). Those

who design within this methodology believe that design shouldn’t be a source of ‘othering’, that

design should instead assist all without having to make exceptions for some. The difference

between Inclusive Design and Universal Design can be seen in everyday life. For example,

when riding the tube from Embankment to Waterloo, as one exits the train and makes their way

on to the platform, they’re greeted by a set of stairs that will take them out of the Underground

Station. However, some people aren’t physically able to ascend these stairs, whether that be

because of their mobility impairments, or perhaps they require more time to scale the steps than

the general public. But, on some platforms, the elevator option is nowhere near the stairs or

perhaps where the stairs let out, causing the person who must use this other option to take

extra time in getting to it. The platforms were originally created with the masses ⁠— those who can

use their legs and take the stairs ⁠— in mind while the ‘other’ groups of people were a secondary

thought. Although it is inclusive, each person can get on and off the platform, it still employs a

sense of ‘othering’. Universal Design dictates that the elevator and the stairs be of equal

distance from the train doors in order to create equity of access.

Although this example lives in the context of architectural and spatial design, those decisions

were made with the persuasion of Graphic Design theory. The psychology behind how a

composition is made applies not only to the visual but to the spatial as well. In the Western

world, we are taught to read from left to right, up then down. Therefore, this style of taking in

information is cemented in our subconscious from the time we learn how to read. As such, those

who have access to visual reception, perceive their environment in this way. When in a new

place, one looks up, not only to take in the sights but to orient oneself in a new environment.

Wayfinding can be implemented to enhance the human way of perceiving environments. Visual

signage is placed where our eyes are naturally drawn to create quicker and easier access to

information. When walking through downtown London, one is bombarded by a cacophony of

sights, sounds, smells, and most importantly, signage. However, the most important of those

signs, when trying to navigate, are those that are placed just out of our field of vision. When in

crowded areas, most of one's eye-level is filled with faces and the backs of heads, therefore

important signage is placed just above. Signposts sit above the hustle and bustle of daily life

and act as the introduction to our orientation of a new environment. They give one a vague

sense of location as well as direction to the next point in our journey. Once we are in proximity

to our destination, we find road signs or building names/numbers, usually at eye-level or lower,

following the top-down path we learned in school. These are all examples of wayfinding.

Historically, wayfinding was coined as a term that involved “...navigating on the open ocean

without sextant, compass, clock, radio reports, or satellite reports” (Polynesian Voyaging

Society, s.d.). The designated Wayfinder would utilise the sun, stars, swells, and other natural

signage to clue in their direction. Hikers have used rock formations called Cairns to guide their

way through trails since ancient times. Many groups of people have found natural objects to use

as directional signage, Graphic Design simply utilises psychological stimulants in a viewer and

makes signage more understandable to the masses.

Graphic Design, however, can only cover so much in terms of accessibility. Graphic Design

does not cover spatial design, it does not cover architecture, nor does it cover the Interior

Design of a museum. Though its theory influences the implementation of all. Graphic Design

heavily relies on the solving of visual problems. Therefore, most of the accessibility barriers that

Graphic Design deals with are making things more legible, quicker for understanding, and

easier to visually locate. This is where Wayfinding excels. To effectively navigate a space, one

must understand where point A and point B exist. Point A could be the lobby, and Point B could

be the Gift Shop, Wayfinding is there to place visitors on a path towards their ideal destination.

Wayfinding is utilised by everyone. No matter if one doesn't recognise they’re following a

designed signage system, they likely are. Knowing one has to turn right at the big McDonald’s

on the corner is an example of personal wayfinding. Recognising a specific smell wafting from a

bread bakery and knowing one is only 5 minutes from home is another example. Not all

wayfinding is a black and white monolith with the words ‘You Are Here’ written on it. However,

this dissertation will specifically be focusing on the decoding of non-personal signage.

In order to make these pieces of directional signage accessible to more than those with 20/20

vision, multiple factors must be considered. Things like visual acuity and impairments, colour

theory, as well as the design of a typeface must be analysed to remove any possible barriers to

the understanding of navigation. Those without the ability to use their ocular senses are already

excluded from the creation of a visual signage system. However, the intersectional identities of

accessibility helps to ensure the inclusion of these factors. The relationship between visual

design and physical development help to remove a barrier of access to navigation.

Visual Acuity and Visual Impairments

The biggest barrier to understanding visual signage is indeed visual impairment. In the book

Sign Design Guide: A guide to inclusive language by Peter Barker and June Fraser, it states

that “70-75 percent of the information we receive is given through eyesight” (Barker and Fraser,

2004:3). A person with any degree of visual impairment will experience some sort of

informational deficit. With this in mind, signage needs to be designed with visual impairments in


The four most common types of visual impairment include Central Field Loss, Peripheral Field

Loss, Combined Field Loss, and Contrast Reduction. The first three field losses feature a

diminished part of the visual field, that being what our eyes perceive. If we imagine our field of

vision as a rectangle; Central Field Loss is when the area in the middle of this field is impacted,

whereas Peripheral Field Loss is the opposite. In this impairment, the areas around the edges of

the visual field are impacted, described as “ looking through a tube” (Barker and Fraser,

2004:13). As can be assumed from the name, Combined Field loss manifests as some sort of

combination of these two impairments. Lastly, Reduced Contrast manifests as a ‘White-Out’.

Specifically, to the viewer, all “Light sources give areas a disabling glare...” (Barker and Fraser,


With these impairments in mind, signage must be designed to accommodate these people to

achieve Accessibility. The design idea of ‘Levels’ is widely used to help mitigate barriers to

understanding signage. This method calls for placing the same information on multiple different

levels in our field of vision in order to make sure that at least one sign can be read by any one

person. For example, in museums, the name of a gallery can be displayed at a general

eye-level, as well as projected on the floor, hanging on an overhead sign, and on a handheld

map. This ensures that at some point along their visual journey, a visitor without complete vision

loss can find the name of the gallery they are entering. This also references how we have

learned to perceive information in Western education. We look up to orient ourselves, then scan

down to find more information. However, those with a loss of vision near the top of their visual

field are unable to do this. The ‘Levels’ strategy ensures that those people can still access the

information they were previously unable to receive.

Typography and Font Choice

The physical placement of signage is not the only consideration when designing wayfinding,

content and composition also need to be analysed. Font choice plays a major role in whether a

visitor can understand the information. It is known by designers that serif fonts, like Times New

Roman, were created for easy reading in print. While sans-serif fonts, like Arial, are easier to

read on a screen. However, whether the font is serif or sans, the economics need to be

considered. Not only do bigger letters take up more space on a sign but take longer to read and

comprehend for those with visual impairments. On the other hand, condensed letterforms make

it harder for those with dyslexia to understand the information presented. Even then, tightly

kerned letterforms make words almost run together and make it difficult for those with

unimpaired eyesight.

The physical makeup of a character can even create confusion. The letter ‘O’ and the number

‘0’ have almost identical physical makeups. Especially in geometric typefaces, these forms tend

to be the same character. In a fast-paced environment, or even with a lack of context, trying to

differentiate the two forms can take an extended amount of time and act as a barrier to

understanding. Because of this phenomenon, the slashed and dotted zero were introduced into

signage design. Most known for their integration with the IBM 3270 system, these characters

have become used to differentiate between an ‘O’ and a ‘0’. However, these characters predate

computers as they were created by Florian Cajori in the twelfth century and were referenced in

his work A History of Mathematical Notations (Raymond and Steele, 1997). However, at a

distance, a slashed zero can look like the figure of an 8 as well as other letters in other

languages. In order to mitigate confusion, letterforms must be treated with care and be

surrounded by contextual clues to help the viewer understand their relevance.

The Psychology of Colour Theory

Colour theory is arguably one of the most important factors in understanding information at a

glance. Colours have been used throughout existence to warn and inform onlookers. Brightly

coloured animals usually signal a presence of poison, while muted coloured animals tend to be

more passive (AMNH, 2014). For those with colour receptors, the language of colour is one of

our first introductions to an object.

Although mostly subconscious, colours have the ability to sway human thinking in an instant.

Most bank branding utilises the colour blue or green because we subconsciously trust those

colours above any other. Red tends to make us hungry, which is why many fast-food chains use

shades of this colour in their identity (Morton, 2016). However, we have also been conditioned

to recognise Red and Green as the colours of mandatory signage. Lit up exit signs are usually

green, and emergency signs tend to be red. When creating signage, these tendencies and

subconscious connections can be used to the designer's advantage, but they can also act as a

barrier to understanding. For example, when driving, we learn that stop signs are red octagonal

signs with the word ‘STOP’ written in all caps. After getting used to the road, we come to

subconsciously recognise those signs. Out of the corner of our eyes, we see a red blur and

know that soon we will need to slow to a stop. What if these signs were green? Or even blue? It

is highly plausible that we wouldn’t recognise them and cause an accident. Or we may be so

enamoured by the out of place signage that we slow to inspect and once again, cause an

accident. The colours we encounter in our everyday life dictate the colours we use in man-made

signage. A misuse of these colours can create barriers to understanding information.

In terms of colour accessibility, there is a mass sub-population who experience colour

blindness. Some can only comprehend a few colours on the spectrum, while others experience

a muted or completely unsaturated range of hues. In this case, using heavily contrasted colours

helps those with colour blindness understand the difference of information. Patterns can also be

used in tandem with colours to help create another difference in content. The contrast of colour

on colour must also be addressed. We have become accustomed to black text on white

background; however, many able-sighted people struggle with taking in information this way.

Because of the extreme disparity between pure black and pure white, this contrast “creates

intense light levels that overstimulate the eyes when reading text" (Anthony, 2018). However,

low vision users who experience a sight impairment, but not full blindness, tend to take in

information better with pure black on pure white, or pure white on pure black. These nuances in

colour contrasts must be taken into consideration when creating signage for viewers.

Accessibility in terms of wayfinding can take many forms when in the context of a museum.

Many of those forms are visible, tangible, and easy to understand. While other forms of signage

are quite the opposite, invisible, intangible, and possibly only understandable to those who know

of their existence. To achieve an inclusive museum, both sets of forms must be considered.

Wayfinding utilises an arsenal of signage tools to help visitors make sense of and navigate a

space. Among the most noticeable are directional signs, which usually include arrows or

phrases like ‘this way to’. Another sign that goes unnoticed to most unless it is an emergency,

are safety/mandatory signs. These include warning signs, prohibition signs, and hazard signs,

characterised by specific colours or shapes. Then, there are informational signs, which are for

general orientation. These usually include the likes of “...internal signs identifying main

locations, maps, directories, plans...” (Barker and Fraser, 2004:23). Lastly, location signage,

always without an arrow, these signs are “...installed at individual locations to indicate the

destination of facility/service/room/person” (Barker and Fraser, 2004:25). In order to create ease

of navigation, these signs are placed in the top-down orientation previously discussed.

Mandatory safety signage is always placed at eye-level or just above, it is by far the most

important information in an enclosed environment, and therefore, at the forefront of our visual

experience. Directional signage tends to take up more space than others. Placed below our

feet, above our heads, to our sides, out of the way of other bodies, these signs guide us to our

destination through symbology. Informational signs also take up an excess amount of space

and act as a physical locater or landmark. By far the smallest are location signage, denoting

singular units, these pieces are the quietest of the system.

We can also look at navigation via wayfinding design through the lens of web design. A good

web page is created by figuring out the smallest number of clicks to get from Point A to Point B.

To get from the Homepage to the About page, it is much easier to click on the menu button and

then hit an About Icon. Or Home>About. However, some sites have pathways that look more

like Home>Work>Contact>About. If someone were simply trying to figure out who worked at an

organisation, it would be much more satisfying and quicker to find out in one click instead of

four. The same goes for Wayfinding. When a visitor looks at a sign, they don’t want to be

directed from the Lobby to the Gift Shop and then to the exhibit if they simply wanted to beeline

for the exhibit. They want to know the quickest way to get from their Point A to Point B. Signage

must be implemented to understand the paths that users may take in a space and orient them

on the most direct course.

To create Wayfinding that inspires navigation rather than inhibiting it, one must understand the

user of the system. Those with physical, visual, mental, emotional, or audible impairments

experience navigation in a completely different way than those who are able-bodied. Universal

Design dictates that Wayfinding —or any design intervention—must accommodate and facilitate

uninhibited situational understanding.

Chapter 3 – What Does Accessibility Look and Feel like at the V&A -
Analysing Dn&Co’s design interventions at the Victoria & Albert Museum

The V&A brand has gone through many identities since its

birth. From the witty and sarcastic brand messaging

featured in the Saatchi & Saatchi campaign to the ornate

and floral imagery utilised in Saffron’s take on the brand. It

wasn’t until Pentagram’s 1989 revamp of the Victoria &

Albert Museum identity that they introduced the memorable

logomark used for the past two decades. The three letters

of the museums' nickname, V&A, come together as a single

form using the ampersand to fill in the removed leg and

crossbar of the A. This set the precedent for the wayfinding

used around the museum. The clean serif titles of the

galleries were placed on bold and sleek signage,

accentuating the art housed within the rooms. The branding achieved a sense of a classical yet

modern look and thus spoke to the values of the museum at that time. However, this branding

creates a sense of stuffiness to those walking through the space. The strict serif type combined

with the grandeur of the architecture oozes a ‘holier

than thou’ essence. The branding does play off the

vastness of the 7-miles of museum space, and it

speaks to the breadth of cultural artefacts held

within the building as well. However, the brand

exhibits the exact opposite ethos to that with which

the V&A opened its doors.

In a conversation between the firm and the museum, the Director of Projects, Design, and

Estate at the V&A, Moira Gemmill, described that “there were hundreds of signs all over the

place but none with any authority, and with no consistency or coherence either in their style or in

their locations...” (Adamson, G. et al. 2013). After a 2002 brand refresh by Wolff Olins, in 2003

the V&A brought in the design firm

Holmes & Wood who designed the

V&A wayfinding with a much more

consistent and didactic approach.

Their philosophy was that being at the

V&A shouldn’t feel like “...seeing an

old Aunt. Something you did more out

of duty than pleasure” (Stephenson&,

2015). The wayfinding system

changed the V&A from a notoriously

hard to navigate space, into an

accommodating and welcoming

institution. They understood that every visitor was unique and did not take the same approach

through the space, nor did every visitor understand just one language. Holmes & Wood

introduced multilingual signage which included internationally recognizable iconography. By

developing a new strategy that combined colour coding, highlighted objects, room numbers, and

exhibition details all within the V&A map, the design firm created an integrated method of

guiding visitors. This paved the way for further accessible changes to happen within the

museum's signage system.

Dn&co’s 2019 restructuring of the V&A’s wayfinding system creates a more socio-economically

accessible take on the V&A’s identity. On top of this, the signage system utilises the tools

needed to create a visually inclusive environment. In order to understand why Dn&Co used the

design interventions they did, one must examine the choices through the lens of Universal

Design. The influence of these philosophies on the implementation is clear and objectively


Organising Information in Levels

Although the ‘Levels’ system of organisation has been used throughout the life of the V&A’s

signage systems, Dn&Co created a cohesive unit between the many different styles of markers.

Each piece of information is available for consumption at each visual level. The iconography on

overhead signage can be found replicated onto bollards and monoliths, as well as onto floor

decals and sconces. Each area of our visual field is met with the same information, creating

consistency and accessibility. As discussed previously, one type of signage does not fit all when

it comes to getting information to a viewer. With the usage of levels, at any one time for any one

person, the piece of the puzzle that is navigating the V&A can be found. However, this

information is not an exact replication throughout the pieces. Each is presented with slightly

different scales and slightly different orientations to the other. This ensures that those who are

able to utilise their entire range of sight, do not become irritated or overwhelmed by the

repetition of information. Every sign is a different experience and therefore lends itself to being

viewed as individual entities as well as a part of a system.

Colours, Patterns, and Icons

Throughout the system, Dn&Co were able to marry

the importance of colour coding and iconography in

each of their sign types. In Figure 5, the colours used

for the Mary Quant exhibition, the Food exhibition,

and the Tim Walker exhibition are all displayed

alongside the black and white main signage for the

gift shop. In Figure 6, the same colours and style are

used at the top of the podium, creating consistency

throughout. Available at every eye-level, these

specified colours pop up throughout the museum and

create a subconscious map for the visitor. On the

other hand, in Figure 5, the icons for bathrooms,

changing rooms, and the coatroom are all displayed

at the bottom of the middle signs. These exact icons

are replicated in Figure 6 in the same position they

inhabit on the overhead sign. Dn&Co explained that

“colour acts as a beacon drawing visitors through the

busy ground floor to paid exhibitions” (dn&co, 2019).

By placing the same information in corresponding

positions on the different types of signs, viewers can

create a mental map of where these colours show up

throughout this space. This not only creates a

subconscious path but also helps to orient the viewer during their navigation experience. The

usage of colour also differentiates the permanent exhibitions from the paid ones. As both a

tactical and marketing intervention, the colour draws the viewer and encourages them to buy

into the experience. Since all of the permanent collections are presented in black and white, the

paid installations stand out and encourage follow-through.

Visual Identity and Branding

The style of the new system, including the colours, icons, and typography, are all thanks to the

visual identity that the V&A has taken on. On top of this, the ethical identity of the museum plays

a major role in the design of the wayfinding system as well. Over the years, the Victoria & Albert

Museum visually presented itself as a place of academic excellence, a contemporary gallery

space, and now an institution to foster learning. By changing the smallest of things, a typeface,

or even a colour palette, those who interact with the brand can take on a completely new

impression of the organisation.

As discussed earlier in the paper, although very clean, Pentagram took a very academic and

even exclusionary visual approach to the V&A brand. The combination of the tall and serifed

typeface, as well as the muted colours of the signage, created a textbook style museum identity.

While this may be comfortable and acceptable to those in JICNAR’s A-C2 classifications, for

those who live below the socio-economic D tier, this style of visuals can be cold, or more likely,

foreign. For one part of the population this style communicates class, while for the other, the

wayfinding system reflects that of the community that has excluded them. Although visually, the

brand covers all the bases it needs to in terms of accessibility, the psychological implications of

the design attribute to the overall accessibility of a brand.

Dn&Co’s visual approach to the Victoria & Albert Museum brand communicates the historically

philanthropic nature of the museum. The signage system features a palette of design choices

that read more like a system you would encounter in an everyday space. The clean and human

typeface resembles that of a system like the London Underground, inviting and far from

intimidating. The bright colours used to denote the paid exhibition communicate a more human

and fun aesthetic, rather than the stuffiness that comes from using pure black and white or

muted palettes. The iconography, rounded and not stylistic, helps to push the human-first

identity. By using imagery and elements of visual culture that reflect the human experience, a

system can effortlessly aid the human experience without hindering.


By connecting the V&A’s visual brand to the philosophy of the organisation — to inspire all people

regardless of status to seek education of their surroundings — the Wayfinding system is able to

support navigation for all visitors. The tactics of Universal Design used in the V&A case study

are not only limited to museum spaces. This approach to creating more accessible public

spaces can be utilised in any, if not all, scenarios. In order to create an inclusive space, one

must understand who is currently being excluded. In the case of the Victoria & Albert Museum,

their design interventions are rooted in their original mission. By wanting to be socially

accessible — by way of creating a space for all Brits to learn — their wayfinding identity must

create an inviting atmosphere. One can only go so far stating they want to achieve full inclusion,

it’s the application of those words that truly matters. To only strive for political or social

accessibility, is to lose the idea of Accessibility. Accessibility cannot be confined to only certain

areas of life, it must be woven into the fabric of design.

If a museum hopes to embody the ideals of a philanthropic organisation, or at least a sense of

inclusiveness, accessibility must be considered at all levels. Judging by the case study of

Dn&Co’s approach to the V&A’s wayfinding, accessibility can be made beautiful and enjoyable

for all audiences. Creating spaces that are truly inclusive and accessible does not have to be a

series of creating substitutions to designs that already exist but can be created from the ground

up as fully integrated solutions. Full accessibility is not out of reach, but must be considered at

the beginning of a project in order to be woven into the framework of an outcome or


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[Photograph] At: (Access 16/03/2021)

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Fig. 6 Dn&Co (2019) Environmental Graphics at the Victoria & Albert Museum. [Photograph] At: (Accessed 16/12/2020)


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