News | 20 June 2024
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Helping people find their way

Darren Switalla puts himself in other people’s shoes to help Wellington’s residents and visitors find their way around the city.

Image of Darren and his signage at Tākina
Darren and his signage at Tākina
He is Wellington City Council’s wayfinding design specialist, meaning he creates the public signage that helps people navigate spaces and places within Pōneke.

“Wayfinding is about understanding how people use spaces around the city and guiding them through a physical environment. It’s important to offer visitors a welcoming, positive and informative visitor experience.”

A member of the Council’s Creative and Brand team, Darren’s main focuses are public parks, car parks and Council facilities, like libraries and pools.

“There’s wayfinding signage everywhere and I think many people take it for granted as part of everyday life. It’s always in the background until you are looking for it.”

So, what does wayfinding entail? After getting familiar with a space and mapping out potential sign locations, Darren will design a sign family. These are made up of various types of signs, including the site name, directional signs that lead people to various locations, information signs that offer details about the place and services, identification signs that label particular areas, and regulatory signs that communicate behaviour change to set expectations and keep people safe.

Darren says a lot of thinking goes into the process.

“We test for accessibility, looking at type sizes, colour and contrast, and considerations around those with no or low vision. It can be high stress too because we want to make things that last a long time and ensure the money that’s spent creating those signs and systems are good value over the long term.”
An example of Darrens work on the toilets at Akau Tangi Sports Centre
An example of Darren's work on the toilets at Ākau Tangi Sports Centre

A graphic designer with the Council for 17 years, Darren says he enjoys putting himself in other people’s shoes and it’s been inspiring witnessing the change in the design approach over time.

“When I first started it was almost cookie-cutter design, but as design has evolved it’s now more user-centred – thinking about the city and the people in it.”

He says the importance of good wayfinding can be underestimated.

“The fear of being lost is real, especially with tourists. A parent could urgently be looking for a changing room and be unable to find one, or a lack of signage could cause someone to run late for an urgent appointment.

“Wherever I go, I am always observing what’s around and what’s not.

“Being in a position of creating those systems, I’m always learning out in the world when it comes to signage.”

A recent example was a family trip to Japan, where Darren says they got “terribly lost” while navigating through a train station by following directional arrows that led to a dead end.

“In a foreign country, that can be nerve-racking. When the signage fails to work it can lead to confusion and second guessing.”

A keen surfer and free-diver and originally from Christchurch, Darren loves the south coast, the compact nature of Wellington city and its surrounding hills.

Work he is most proud of includes the wayfinding signage at both Tākina, and Ākau Tangi Sports Centre in Kilbirnie.

The father of two says it’s a privilege championing te reo Māori with bilingual signage, which he believes “is adding a lovely fabric to the community”.

“Often signage is part of the first impression. It’s the first exposure before entering a building, so it’s important to develop a solution that is inclusive and friendly when welcoming people into our spaces.”