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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

July 1, 2005

Heading in the right direction

by Diana Pounds

Alan Parsons likes to watch moms, dads and soon-to-be Iowa State students rolling through the revolving doors into the Memorial Union. He hangs around the entryway, hoping the families will glance at the sign above their heads and move on ... without pausing to ask him for directions.

It's not that Parsons is an unfriendly fellow. It's just that the sign hanging from the ceiling -- the one pointing to the Sun Room, the Oak Room and other Union hotspots -- is his. And if the sign is doing its job, visitors can find their way without having to ask the student in the corner.

An eye-opening class

"Way finding" -- a term to describe how people navigate buildings and other locales -- has become Parson's academic passion. The graduate student in graphic design discovered his interest when he took associate design professor Lisa Fontaine's class on the subject a couple of years ago. The class did an exhaustive study of one of the campus' most way-finding-challenged buildings -- the Memorial Union. Among the Union challenges to newcomers are the variety of styles in the building (each addition added over the years looks different), hard-to-find places like the Sun Room, and the maze of hallways between parking ramp and Union.

Directional sign
Here's a sample of one of Parson's most recent directional sign proposals for the Union's first floor

Fontaine's class developed a way-finding plan for the Union that included a series of navigational signs, and Parsons picked up where the class left off.

A year ago, he was hired to develop, install and test signs in the Memorial Union. Since then, he's met with architects to ensure the signs will complement coming Union renovations and created and tested dozens of signs. The signs go up, and Parsons assesses their effectiveness by watching, videotaping and surveying visitors.

Optima not optimal

Sometimes, the feedback hurts. Parsons thought he'd found the perfect font to conceptually tie the look of the original Memorial Union to its newer additions. But the "perfect" Optima font proved hard to read in the Union lighting.

So Parsons reworked the signs with newer and larger fonts, and the results are encouraging. People are using the signs, he said. And Union staff aren't getting nearly as many requests for directions as they used too.

Parsons finishes up his sign work this month. The next steps are up to the sign manufacturer, but Parsons says he'll remain in touch to ensure the new system works well. His goal is to leave the Union with a series of signs that will "unite and bring the building together as a whole."

A sense of belonging

On a grander scale, Parsons hopes to create a sense of belonging in the Memorial Union. "This building is a central place, a starting place for many who visit the campus," he said. "I want people to feel comfortable here."

How do you create a sense of belonging? Stay tuned. Parsons is working on a thesis on that very topic.

Alan Parsons

Alan Parsons (Photo by Bob Elbert.)


"I want people to feel comfortable here."

Alan Parsons