November 22, 2008

How To Give Directions and Way Find

How Far to Wall Drug?
This post came about after reading about a study out of the Illinois State University that tested different methods of giving directions; either by “birds-eye” perspective with cardinal directions (go north 2 kilometers, turn east) or by route perspective (Mettent deux blocs à la Rue Voltaire, tournez à gauche). There is also a post here full of comments and suggestions for giving directions.

In the days before mobile telephones, it was necessary to give better directions, since communication was impossible en route (I'm at the east entrance, where are you?). Back when I threw (delivered) the LA Times, the route perspective was used. This got me to think of an ideal way to give directions, and a couple of issues that aren’t fully addressed in either link. One has to do with the syntax of direction giving, and the other has to do with the details of the circumstances.

When thinking about the syntax, I’m assuming that the way finder has a starting location that runs the gamut from familiar (home, work) to unfamiliar (a hotel, airport) and an unknown destination. The two points can be rural to urban and involve movements on foot, in a car, or public transportation. In almost all circumstances, directions will break into two parts that I’m calling The Funnel and The Route.

The Funnel
The funnel would move the person from their starting location to a densely traveled feeder route like a highway or train. The syntax would be:

Take (highway, train) (designation) (direction and distance if necessary) to (exit, stop).

In the case where it’s necessary to give more than one highway or train, the last exit or stop would be replaced by a transfer or highway change, with each leg of the directions on a separate line. Some examples:

- Take the A train to 72nd Street/Central Park West
- Take the 405 north about 20 miles to Roscoe Boulevard
- Take the 435 south about 11 miles to the 70 West,
take the 70 west about 225 miles to Russell
- Take the Narita Express to Tokyo Station

These directions assume that airports have signs pointing out rail or highway access, hotel clerks can point the way to the highway, or a person knows how to get from their home to a highway or train. It’s helpful to remember that highways have signage with number designations, so “Take the 5 south to the 710 south,” would be preferable to, “Take the Sadao Munemori Memorial Interchange to the Rosa Parks Freeway.”

For the most part, the less that is said, the better, then ad in qualifiers if necessary. In most cities, once a person is in a subway (or freeway) system, there are maps and signs that will help them find their stop or exit. By looking about (rather than at a piece of paper) one will more easily become familiar with landmarks and signs, thus build a better sense of direction. The same holds true for distances. Going “about 20 miles” will keep the way finder’s eyes peeled for the exit sign, not glued to the odometer and miss the exit. So an example of a paired down set of directions might be, “From the airport, take the subway to the Zócalo.” Yes, there may be better, more efficient routes than others, but nobody like a control freak.

The Nexus
The nexus between The Funnel and The Route, is probably the most justifiable place to include idiosyncratic landmarks. It may be cloudy, nighttime, or streets may run at odd angles, so cardinal directions may confuse more than help. Coming out of a subway (with multiple exits that are blocks apart and facing many possible directions) calls for a bit of landmark orientation. “When you get out of the subway, walk towards the big cathedral on the plaza with the huge Mexican flag.” Highways may have multiple exits for each direction on the surface street, “Take the second Anaheim Street exit going east.

The Route
Once the way finder is on surface streets either by car or on foot, directions should follow a similar syntax using streets, distance and direction:

Go (distance in miles or blocks) (direction if necessary) to (cross street or intersection); (course change).


Take (street name) (direction if necessary) (distance) to (cross street or intersection)
[line break] (course change)(next street).

Some examples:

- Take Wilshire Boulevard east about a mile to Westwood; turn left
- Walk on the right side of Avenida Armendariz until it curves left;
take the first footpath on the right
- Go 2 blocks;
turn left on 11th Avenue

Directions are easier to follow if the same syntax is maintained; by separating course changes on a different line, it makes it easier for a driver to keep their place on the paper while navigating traffic.

Descriptive qualifiers may be necessary when encountering roundabouts, “T” intersections, or streets that bifurcate at odd angles. Some examples:
  • Take PCH south to the traffic circle; take the second exit Los Coyotes Diagonal
  • Counting blocks on the right side, go 2 blocks to Minerva Park; turn right
  • Keeping in the left lane, drive about 2 kilometers to Rue Danton; veer left
  • Go about 2 miles to Walnut Avenue which has a traffic light; turn right
There are those cities with inconsistent or hard-to-read signage and streets that run at odd angles. Tokyo, Venice, and the medina quarter in north African cities come to mind. In these instances, landmarks become more necessary.

It’s best to leave out relative or ambiguous terms like up or down, and stick to left, right, and straight (or gaily forward). If you find it necessary to give cardinal directions (Lakewood Boulevard exit east) it’s better to not capitalize them, so as not to confuse streets with cardinal directions in the names (go right on East 1st Street might be misread as go right (east) on 1st Street).

Mitigating Circumstances
There are situations when other systems of way finding are relied upon. If the person is in possession of and uses paper maps or GPS technologies, then information that relates to their tools—such as map coordinates, destination address with postal code, etc.—can be provided.

When approached by lost folks asking for directions, it’s probably better not to overwhelm them with detailed directions, but rather help them get a little closer—or back to some familiar landmarks. Too many changes of direction can be easily misremembered (was it left-left-right-left-right-left, or left-left-left-right-right-left?).

If you’re unable to find your destination, it may be better to first ask for more general directions to a neighborhood (Can you point me to Colonia Centro?), then a street (Where is Calle Allende?), and finally a specific location (Donde estas Café Tacuba?).

Opportunities like the next may only happen one in a lifetime, so it’s best to be prepared. While out walking my dog in Westwood, a car—presumably full of UCLA music students and their instruments—pulled over and asked how to get to Royce Hall. What could I say but, “Practice, practice?”

Sphere: Related Content


  1. I was just going to write something about routes being the more natural way of way finding until is struck me that I don't even ask for directions to places anymore, I just ask for addresses and find maps online.

    Though when I give directions the detail of the route tends to get a sharp upsweep toward the end: "it's the white house on the right side of the street, and there's a big maple tree in the front yard, and the house entrance is on the right" etc. etc.

  2. you should look aqt the Financial Times weekend magazine for this weekend. It discusses GPS navigation and how it can get people lost/almost killed.


Thank you for continuing the conversation by leaving a comment! If you post anonymously with a question, check back here in the comments section, as I'll usually reply in the comments section. Comments on posts older than two weeks are welcome, but are moderated, so they may take a while to appear. Irrelevant linking will be deleted.