Innovator shows the way across borders

12th November 2003, Comments 0 comments

Helping people find their way around – the next great Dutch export? We speak to Mr Sign.


He has won international awards for his signs, re-jigged the public notices in both the Concertgebouw and Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam and was hired by the New York Port Authority to 'Schipholize' the craziness at JFK, La Guardia and Newark airports. Yet, there is no razzle-dazzle about Mijksenaar, who is as down to earth and clear as his signs.

The professor in Delft is fascinated by the search for ways to clarify and simplify the obvious. He comes across as organized, direct and logical. Typically Dutch? Perhaps. The jury is still out on that one.

But, when it comes to those yellow signs with black letters at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, there is no doubt that the acclaimed signage system, designed by Mijksenaar and his Way-Finding prodigies, has become the standard by which all airports are compared. 

If you haven't noticed the signs at when passing through Schiphol, Mijksenaar's method works. If you have, it is likely that you travel often and know how hellish and disorganized many airports can be, especially for the weary, long distance traveller.


"My goal is to make those moments at airports, train and metro stations, as well as in hospitals where stress can get out of control, as comfortable and as easy as possible," he says.

"And, I always get lost. Everyone here in our team gets lost," he quips.

Fascinated by travel routes, maps, schemes, plans and, well most everything else, Mijksenaar adds ergonomic research and psychology to the Way Finding theory and has made it work in places notorious for confusion, congestion and especially anxiety.

The theory was developed in the 1980s by two Canadians who wrote about architecture, people, signs, design and environmental space.

"We see ourselves as Way-Finding People, which means we deal with the convergence of architecture, people, signing, lighting, advertisement and design," he adds.

The key to Way Finding, according to Mijksenaar, is to get into the mind of the user or passenger, or rather, tap into their instincts, because weary travellers do not always have the ability to concentrate and think clearly.

"Like most people when I'm travelling I'm thinking about other things so I get mixed up. I travel often and even if I am prepared, I'm always nervous. I think most people are like this so they forget to read signs and have to rely on routine things that are already stored in their mind; that is instinctual. But, it's easy to get wrong signals or mixed messages."

Mijksenaar explains the yellow signs with black letters, for the gates at Schiphol, are conspicuous, therefore the information is very easy to absorb. They need not be very large when they are so bright and the amount of information on the signs is kept to a minimum. He uses colour, font, lighting, shading and pictograms strategically.


"It's a subconscious thing and the psychologists we consult always say we should not overestimate our public" he says.

"When you are exhausted after a long flight, in an unfamiliar airport, there is only thing on anyone's mind: how do I get out of here? Even though there are things to do first like find the luggage and use the restroom, we don't overload them with information."

"Yellow stands out so if you are looking for your gate you only have to look at the yellow sign. But when you need a restroom you only focus on the green signs. And of course at Schiphol the language on all the signs is only in English."

Mijksenaar would like architects to use his requirements and specifications for new buildings, which include advertising and emergency signs.

"If we can get in at the conception and help design a better building, then we need less signs. That's the bait we give to architects because they hate signs. They want an attractive building but we think it has to be logical."

A few years ago Mijksenaar was asked to look into the situation at Terminal 4 at JFK (created by a consortium headed by Schiphol USA, the US subsidiary of the Schiphol Group). After video taping the whole place and pinpointing trouble spots, including the messages and navigation inconsistencies, he presented his findings to the JFK board.

"They were flabbergasted at what I showed them. They then called in the Port Authority because they realized that if you have good signs in one terminal and others are poor or even terrible, which was the case in New York, you still have a big problem."

"Schipholizing" New York Port Authority is a daunting task but the team set up an office there and are well under way.

"We thought about the information people need, and put it on different signs. We concentrate on keeping all information separate, but of course it's also a matter of space so we decided to combine categories, primary, secondary and tertiary categories of information. "

"And we colour coded the categories so primary information, flight and gates, is yellow with back type facing, while the secondary information is green."

Mijksenaar doesn't pretend he's coined a new international language, "but, in a way, that's the idea," he quipped.

October 2003

Subject: Dutch business and signage

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