Which exit is which in the Smithsonian Metro station? Signs at the end of each platform direct riders, but there is no sign in the middle of the platform to assist in navigation. (John Kelly/TWP)
Columnist

Wayne Hunt was explaining why it is I get so angry when the signs in the Metro don’t tell me what I need to know.

“An orientation is a powerful need we have,” Wayne said on the phone from Pasadena, Calif., where he runs a company called Hunt Design. “The sense of safety goes back to our cave-man days: ‘Can I escape the woolly mammoth?’ You’ve got to know where you are and what’s ahead of you. Take that away and it’s very disorienting. You feel very vulnerable.”

I’d called Wayne in preparation for my semiannual gripe about Metro’s “wayfinding,” a wonderful self-explanatory term of art that basically means signage.

Like most people, I’m pretty adept at the ingrained routines of my daily life. I know the entrances and exits and transfer locations of my normal subway commute. But I look for guidance when I’m thrown into an unfamiliar situation.

That can include when I’ve sprinted down an escalator because I see that a train has just pulled up to a lower platform. Does the train I want come in on that side of the platform? Is that the train I want?

Too many places on Metro don’t provide obvious answers to those questions. The train itself blocks the sign on the station wall. You have to hunt around the platform for a pylon that has line information.

Or there’s the Smithsonian station. It has an exit on each end of the platform, one that leads to the Mall, the other to Independence Avenue. Signs at each end of the platform say as much, but what if you’ve gotten off in the middle of the platform? You have to walk to one end or the other, giving you a 50/50 chance of having to backtrack. Why not another sign in the middle of the platform that says the Mall thissa way and Independence Avenue thatta way?

“We like to say you should never be without the next sign in your sightline,” Wayne said. “Maybe you can’t read it, but you want to know if you can walk 50 feet and see a message before you’ve walked the entire 300 feet.”

Wayne’s wayfinding projects have included the Mall, the Statue of Liberty and parts of Zion National Park and Los Angeles International Airport. He thinks the signage in Washington is actually pretty good, but subways pose special challenges.

“You have a general understanding of your environment that you walk about with,” he said. “The minute you go underground, you give it all up. It is daunting. You surrender everything you intuitively picked up before you got on.”

The conventions of subway travel — identifying line information by the end stations — can also be unhelpful when you’re trying to make a snap decision. Of course, the same thing often applies to highways. Wayne said that in Los Angeles, you can be confronted by a sign that instructs you to turn right to get on the freeway to Sacramento.

“That’s 500 miles away when what I really want to get to is Wilshire Boulevard or some place that’s two miles away,” he said.

Wayne’s business may involve signs, but that doesn’t mean he thinks they’re always the best answer. Too many signs means clutter.

“You can see the problem if signs are trying to be everything for everybody,” he said. “It would be nothing but signs. We want the fewest, clearest messages. We often say that a sign is a failure of architecture. . . . A truly intuitive environment has very few signs. Underground is not an intuitive environment.”

(Nor, Wayne said, are elevators and parking garages, which can bedevil people in similar ways, erasing our sense of direction. I still get turned around in the elevators in The Post’s “new” building.)

Wayne said that the wayfinding business is in the middle of an electronic information revolution. “In 10 years, sophisticated places like Metro stations and airports are going to have real-time, brightly-lit informational signs that change every minute,” he said.

These digital signs sound cool, but I think Metro can fix most of its problems with some well-placed old-fashioned signs.

With so many woes confronting Metro, signage may seem like a small thing. But I think it’s all related. If Metro’s brass rode the lines frequently — if they put themselves in the shoes of harried commuters or confused tourists; if they stood at various points in a station and looked for signs — they would see the problems.

Of course, Metro is not alone. I got lost the first time I went to the Barns at Wolf Trap, finding the signage once you exit the Dulles Toll Road woefully inadequate. It wasn’t any better when I visited not long ago: a tiny, easily missed sign that directed drivers to make a U-turn.

Where are some other places in the area that have poor, confusing or nonexistent signs? Drop me an email with details. Maybe we can help find ourselves.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.