Museum wayfinding: A critique of the 3D Paper Pathfinder

As a wayfinding tool, the collapsible 3D museum map doesn't make the cut

As the Applied team looks at taking on some wayfinding challenges in museums, we were pleased to discover an event put on by the Information Design Association (IDA) all about museum wayfinding.

A museum is quite the unique environment to navigate. It’s a juggling act between the curatorial aspect and service aspect of the institution. Often complex buildings and high visitation numbers, navigation is one of the most persistent challenges for many museums.

The event at the IDA was called ‘Beyond the signs at the museum’ and explored one designer’s attempt at mapping a museum in Amsterdam, the Rijksmuseum.

What this designer created to navigate the Rijksmuseum was called a Paper Pathfinder. It’s a 3D map that folds out to show the various levels of the building.

A collapsible 3D map of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.

A very cool concept indeed, the project has been featured on ArchDaily, Fast Company, Dutch Design Daily and various other online design blogs, and was a finalist at the 2014 Dutch Design Awards.

The concept, however, does have its flaws. Firstly, the map is sold in the museum’s gift shop, defeating the purpose of it as most people visit the gift shop after seeing the exhibitions. This also means a cost is involved to use the Paper Pathfinder – further defeating its purpose.

While the design’s advantages include its small size and an instant sense of the layout of the environment, the elements of the map don’t actually tie into the signage of the building or the museum’s floor plans. The rooms are numbered and titled after each exhibit’s artists, whereas the Paper Pathfinder uses only dates.

From a wayfinding perspective the design falls short. While an interesting concept, it’s not one that can be applied to many environments. It would facilitate navigation of places that places people tend to explore, like shopping malls or museums. The 3D map would not necessarily ease navigation of an airport, for example, since most of us have hands full at the airport, a visual based system makes the most sense in that particular environment.

Moreover, the design works well for the Rijksmuseum as the building’s central courtyards allow for a view of the inner floors, however this is an architectural element not shared by all museums.

The building’s two courtyards allow the view into the 3 levels.

Despite its drawbacks the 3D Paper Pathfinder is definitely a piece of innovation for the field of wayfinding. A concept that would be most effective in a shopping mall, we commend its creator for its convenient size, functional storage element, and its ability to give the user a visual of the entire building at a glance. The Applied team would love to see the concept put to the test and developed further.