We designed the wayfinding systems for Google’s Tokyo offices. I documented the process in an essay called “Faith/Void Split” which was published in Slanted. In lieu of photographic documentation of the hundreds of signs I created, I have excerpted the essay here. :
It is a Monday in April, 2012. I am on the 50th floor of a giant office building in the middle of one of Tokyo’s largest financial centers, staring at the ceiling and trying to think of how the fuck I am going to come up with a wayfinding plan to make navigation of 600-plus offices, meeting rooms, and cafeterias spread out over three floors easier for the 1,000-plus people that work there. They’re already lost as hell in the two floors they currently occupy, and the addition of a whole new floor of offices has brought the mandate: get it to all make sense somehow.
The past few years have been a flurry of time lost to stopgap solutions with no apparent results. Every single one of my previous visits to the site has revealed employee-after-employee squinting, scrutinizing, craning necks sideways, and attempting to make some sort of sense of the never-ending parade of laminated floor plans set with 4-point type, as well as a lack of depicted physical orientation. The new signage system must be big, bold, and obvious. It must use numerous mnemonics including color, two languages, and some semblance of form-making. The site is gigantic, and for some reason, I have been chosen to make it happen. This in itself is a really cool thing: it’s one of those star projects that every designer dreams of—the budget is reasonable and it’s something so big that there’s a decent timeline. As long as I don’t fuck it up, it’s going to enhance the value of our rinky-dink little studio a thousand-fold. It’s going to be very interesting for these reasons, along with a variety of others, most notably in that I have no natural sense of direction. Perhaps this somehow makes me the most suitable candidate for the job—essentially, if I can figure it out, then so could anyone.
Now, when I say I have no natural sense of direction, what I mean is that I constantly ride my bicycle around Tokyo blindly, unable to geolocate myself in any fashion, even with the help of Google Maps on my phone. I leave our home office an hour prior to meetings just to be safe if I have never been to a particular meeting place. I have lived in Tokyo for the past seven years, and this does not bode well.
I have always been like this—perhaps it’s the result of my country bumpkin childhood or my copious drug intake in my teens and twenties, though I doubt it. I have no idea. My mom grew up in the same small town I did and she gets around fine. She can drive from her new home in Prescott, Arizona to Los Angeles without a map, whereas I got insanely lost last time I was there just trying to get to the liquor store. I wish there was some Roland Barthes-ian post-Structural/poetic aspect to all of this, but there just isn’t. I have lived the past 39 years hopelessly lost and there is little doubt that this will continue until the time I’m interred.
This project was the result of going to a site and looking at how the humans who inhabit a site were interacting with their environment. One day, I had a meeting at Google and after haplessly attempting to decipher their wayfinding system, ambled upon the appropriate meeting area and waited outside.
While waiting, I watched diferent Googlers try to find where they were going and I started timing them—the average time they tried to decipher the old wayfinding came to an average of 30 seconds per person. For a company that prides itself on its engineering as much as their design, this seemed off…
I proposed a wayfinding system based on the greater scheme of the giant round building that the Tokyo division inhabits—round paths with bilingual stops akin to a nature trail.
Now, Googlers find their way quickly and immediately through their Tokyo offices via a quick visual scan. I tested the times last time I was there—people barely looked at the signs, and if they did, the maximum time was for 5 seconds.