Designing Accessible Navigation:
Analyzing the Design Interventions
Used in the V&A Museum’s New
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 “...like 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
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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