London 2012: A blueprint for event wayfinding

On July 27th 2012, the doors opened on the London Olympics, and as Head of Wayfinding on the project, I saw 18 months of intricate work and a brand new approach to wayfinding take shape.

It’s important to remember that, for most of the ticket holders, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see an Olympic Games on home ground. Hosting an Olympics arguably holds the greatest excitement of any sporting event worldwide, and with that come high expectations of the host country, the venues and the overall experience.

In addition, we felt the world was coming to the UK, a huge international influx of people, bringing with them myriad expectations. Expectations not just of the sporting events, but the new stadiums and arenas, the Olympic Park and the experience of the Olympics in London and other cities themselves.

London’s iconic landmarks are too many to mention here, but from St Paul’s and Tower Bridge to the Gherkin and Buckingham Palace, it’s safe to say that London is held in high regard around the globe for its architecture. Indeed, the UK as a whole, with its vast history in design thinking and buildings is a world-leader.

I had worked on stadium wayfinding before as project lead on the new Wembley Stadium and early stages of the o2 Arena redevelopment, as well as the opening of new terminals at Heathrow and Dublin airports, so I knew the importance that a simple, intuitive wayfinding system can have on first impressions of the end user.

The scale of the Olympic Games as a project, over 30 competition venues, 4 athletes’ villages, media centres as well as the London streets, the huge national and city transport networks, and international airports, meant a new approach to the term ‘wayfinding’ was needed.

To most, the focus will have been on the Olympic Park itself, but the Games adapted venues such as Wimbledon, Lord’s Cricket Ground and ExCeL, built several temporary venues including Greenwich Park and Horse Guards Parade and used football stadiums across the country such as Old Trafford and Millennium Stadium. With all this to consider this was not a ‘one venue fits all’ event by any means. Alongside the customer experience, there was the consideration of the business case for the coherent masterplan, too.

This wasn’t just about putting up some signs in the right place – around 500,000 at the last count – but adopting a masterplan approach to every piece of information that guided, navigated, or orientated anyone interacting with the Games. From the design of city maps and tickets, Games Maker and Travel Ambassadors uniforms through to how directional information was displayed all were created with the ‘One Way’ approach in mind.

The ‘One Way’ approach

The answer was the ‘One Way’ wayfinding masterplan – a blueprint for a multi-venue event on such a large scale. The ‘One Way’ Masterplan was an approach that linked together functional and operational requirements with core identity principles and information planning into one integrated system. By looking at the six steps of navigation, one thing was clear to us – we needed to bring together the different service providers to work on a simplified wayfinding system.

Historically, Games organisers had focused on what was perceived as their domain of responsibility, i.e the venue itself. This had often resulted in disjointed and confusing systems where information on transport networks and in the city did not appear to match that inside the venue.

In London’s case, this meant Network Rail, Transport for London, Heathrow Airport, the Mayor of London’s office, the ODA (Olympic Delivery Authority) and LOCOG (London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games) all needed to be on the same page to deliver a seamless customer experience.

To solve that problem, a suite of graphic elements and distinctive products were created to give the wayfinding system its own identity, this combined with a common approach to what messages were displayed and information was structured gave the system a confident presence in an already busy backdrop of everyday London.


Why pink worked so well

Shape, form, typography, icons, colour and illustrations all formed the basis of the graphic language. But perhaps the most important, striking and memorable was the 2012 magenta, or pink. For those who came to the London Olympics, and anyone who has seen photographs of the events, one colour will stand out – Magenta. A bright, bubble-gum pink, not always seen on signage and which gave an instant connection and impact with 2012.

We knew that we would need something that would give the Games their own identity, and an instant impact – we wanted people to be talking about, sharing and celebrating 2012. However, achieving that was not going to be easy. With that in mind, the wayfinding team travelled the route from Heathrow to the Olympic Park and other sites, noting the different colours of signage on the way.

From Heathrow’s yellow signage, through Network Rail (dark blue signs) we moved across the London Underground network (white background and blue letters). We then got on the street where there was Legible London (navy blue with a yellow header). From the colour palette we had to choose from, that left us with red and green (quickly discounted as more commonly associated with safety), and finally, magenta.

A core colour of pink was selected to be used throughout public transport, national rail, airport, host city environments and last-mile approaches and through to arriving at the seat. Pink was an unusual choice in wayfinding, but one that worked superbly. Using pink gave us contrast in a lot of environments – it was bright in the underground, and concourses, and quite a contrast at the park where we knew we wanted to use very large signs. Against a pale or grey sky, we needed a colour that would punch out, and pop.

The pink created an impactful sign system against a backdrop of established and varied sign schemes. They were integral to creating a legible and recognisable product and information system. A cost-effective approach to design utilised London’s design heritage and iconic typeface that has set the standard for wayfinding ever since.

More than a sign system

Where many see wayfinding as sign planning, a masterplan approach will take the view that wayfinding is something people do and that the sign system is part of that.

The Olympic Park had some very clear staples of the masterplan approach:

  • The Park was split into several key zones, or ‘containers’, called Orbit Circus, World Square, Britannia Row and Street Market. The zones were fundamental to the movement principles of the One Way plan, keeping the flow of people between events and venues streamlined.
  • Directions and instructions could be read from a distance of between 75 and 2 metres.
  • Huge maps showed the full extent of the park and gave people informed choices for reasons to visit.
  • Gantry signs welcomed visitors in their thousands and provided the important social media photo backdrop, but their main operational function was to separate crowds when the Park closed in the evening.
  • Walking times to each venue were displayed and venue.
  • Sport pictograms were created to help non-English speakers or those with accessibility needs.
  • There were eleven major products, some reaching 16 metres high or spanning railway lines. These products were all multi-purpose, and formed the cornerstone of the masterplan approach.
  • Beacons delineated the main spine of the Park to avoid crowds becoming spread across several routes.
  • Smaller beacons were used to show localised information but fitted with screens linked back to Park Operational Centre so messages could be relayed in case of emergency or updates on the transport conditions outside of the Park.

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