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Do you find airports confusing? One of my pet peeves is that in the one place we all need to know the precise time, there are no clocks. And signage from airport to airport can be terribly unhelpful. Which way is the baggage carousel for MY flight? Does the rental car bus stop at the middle island or the far island? We called on our Traveler at Large, Tony Kahn, to check out Logan International Airport in Boston, because Logan has long gotten a bad rap. Tony invited a master in airport signage design to join him, and now both Paul Meeskenar and Tony can confirm all the aspersions - Logan is very tough to navigate.

Airport Navigation

by Tony Kahn, 11/2/2001

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P: Airport exit! You just passed it. And-
T: Oh, here's another one!
P: Oh, no, we go, no, we go, hmmmm!
T: Oh oh. We're stuck-
P: Do right! Do right. Do right. Airport exit.
T: But-

Paul Mijksenaar is an international expert in the art of giving directions.

P: Boston - in the middle! And clearance, how high is your car? I only know it in meters, so . . .
T: Oh, good point!

And Boston needs all the help it can get.

P: Boston! Rever—
T: That's a town called Revere.
P: Is it?
T: Right.
P: Ah, I thought it was reverse - we go to the terminal.

Paul has clarified the signage at Holland’s Schiphol and New York’s Kennedy Airports, and at transportation centers around the world. And his skill at getting vital information to travelers quickly and effectively has never been more in demand.

P: You have no idea how much information people has to digest - advertisements, traffic signs, even. Warnings, whatever. Here! “Caution, look left before crossing.” That's not for us, that's for pedestrians! But I already read it, because I can see it.

My day with Paul began dim and early several hours before, when I’d picked him up at Logan Terminal C, an area criss-crossed by concrete obstructionsand slowed to a standstill by the Big Dig, one of the world’s more endless construction projects. I’d told him to be on the lookout for a dark green car with a dent on the door. I should have added and a big fresh parking ticket on the windshield.

P: Well, we meet here only by violating the law, because you are not supposed to park here
T: There is a sign right in front of us that says active pickup only. Would that be comprehensible to somebody who had just
arrived in this country?
P: There are two kind of pickups, obviously, a passive pick-up only, and an active - I don't know the difference! What does it mean?
T: (LAUGHING) I have no idea! And I live here.


P: Ah, you honk!
T: He won't leave. He will not move!


Paul had never been to Logan before, so I asked him to give me a spontaneous evaluation of its information landscape by getting us to Downtown Boston simply by following the signs.

P: Toll.
T: There are also signs that say Fast Lane, no cash -
P: I would choose the fast lane because it sounds good, fast
T: And what you don't know is that Fast Lane means you have to have a special gizmo on your windshield that triggers an electronic device that lets you go through -
P: Oh, like the Easy Pass, I know that.
T: Take that and you'd be stuck in front of a machine with no human being there to help figure out --
P: And still don't know if we're on the right way to Boston. You know, all those signs were put in good faith to help us. But there's hardly anybody who takes the trouble to see it as a whole system and reacts accordingly - change names, find terminology which makes sense, instead of “Fast Lane” say, well, “this is a lane for members only,” something like that. You can make this drive in any city of the world.

Yes, all cities can be confusing, but few got their street grid, as legend has it, from following a wandering cow. And name me one other major metropolitan area that takes pride, when it labels a major throughway at all, in giving it not one name, but two.

T: This is a tunnel called Sumner Tunnel, only in one direction. In the other direction it's called Callahan Tunnel.
P: Really. Why is that?
T: Why? You ask why?

Most American cities, Paul says, actually have a habit of naming a bridge or tunnel without ever telling you where it goes.

The wall of misinformation heading in was as solid as it was heading out.

P: All terminals and parking!
T: So forget about what all these letters mean.
P: I try to avoid to read any more signs because otherwise I get confused.
P: Here, left! That's E!
T: LAUGHS. Oh, 'cause that's the airport exit.
T: I'm not kidding, folks, this is really confusing.

After some confusion re-entering the building from the rooftop
parking lot,

P: Where is the entrance?

. . . after an attack of agoraphobia in an elevator clearly designed for an elephant herd . . . and after a trip down a motorized walkway offering a lovely view of soaring planes and no warning of a looming off ramp . . . we arrived at the international terminal and its thundering crowds. Like the converging points of two mighty rivers, the cross-currents of arriving and departing passengers create a delta of potential information disasters.

P: Look, arrivals, exit to ground transport - that's for arriving passengers, we are departing passengers. “Welcome to Boston.” But I am leaving.
T: Good point! It's for those who don't know if they're coming
or going
P: That would be helpful, of course. Split it up and make it
color coding as we do it. For example, we made three categories, flying, waiting and leaving the airport. We are leaving so we have to look for the KLM booth or whatever airline. That's the only information you need.

Paul has taught himself to look at every new situation with the eyes of a child – often in need of guidance and prone to take things at face value. Like most travelers, in other words. Following him, you realize how tough a job clear signage can be. For instance, the sign can be clearly visible but too complex to follow.

P: Look at that guy who tries to get a smart cart. You need a dollar, I think.
MAN: Yes. I just read it.
T: Right, there's a sign that says it's as easy as one, two, three. Is it as easy as one, two, three?
MAN: It's not easy. No.
P: You don't like it any more?
MAN: No, I don't like it any more.

The sign can make sense, but be pointed the wrong way.

T: Sir, do you know that you're next to a sign that says check
in here for international passengers?
MAN: No, I didn't. CHUCKLES
T: Nobody has come up and asked you how to get to Tel Aviv?
MAN: Fortunately, they haven't asked me because I wouldn't know where to send them.
T: You find this a little absurd?
MAN: All airports are like this - they put signs and I think it's to confuse people? Gotta go in this direction, they should go in that direction . . . 'Cause there's domestic flights here, there's overseas flights there. People who buy E tickets get in the wrong line, 'cause there's no signs telling them this.
T: What kind of work do you do, may I ask?
MAN: Oh, I'm a water supply engineer.
T: Do you think this has engineering problems? Information engineering problems?
MAN: Well, see, the engineers are the ones that don't put the signs up. PR people put the signs up. That's the problem.

The sign can be clearly lit, perfectly positioned, and simply written and still be gibberish.

P: You have ticketing and checking, some people don't understand what you mean by that, check-in, because they have to buy a ticket. And if you say ticketing, they don't understand because they have to go to the airline.
T: Courtesy bus.
P: I didn't know what means before I came to United States and I think it means mainly free shuttle. So why don't you say free shuttle? That would be helpful if at least American airports sit together and have the same terminology. That would be wonderful.

Even then, you still have to tackle the greatest cause of illiteracy among travelers – panic.

P: People in stress they forgot everything they ever learned. They don't read signs. They jump from people to people, “where is the KLM?” They have no time to read, they have no time to think, they are not able to consume any information besides from human beings.

The job of any good information artist, says Paul, is to create an
environment in which the traveler feels not only helped, but welcome.

P: I think airports should take an example Barnes and Nobles or Starbucks. If you go to Barnes and Nobles, for example, it looks like a sitting room. So if people like to stay there for hours in a book shop, with a cup of coffee and a stack of
magazines, why shouldn't they the same do in an airport while waiting for hours for connecting flights?
T: Where do you get your inspiration? You mentioned Starbucks . . .
P: Well, museums for example, or let's say zoos, because their main thing is that you enjoy people at zoos. So I don't what to suggest that every airport has to become a zoo -
T: It is already.
P: (LAUGHS) It's already - but you can learn from that kind of environment. Because it's more entertaining, keep it easy, and things like - here, this gentleman talked about that line, that long line. You see the same line at Metropolitan Museum of Art or in Disneyland, but then you have entertainers, they walk along the lines, they entertain people, why shouldn't you use it here?
T: That's very true.
P: That's the first time I come up with entertainment in
queuing lines.
T: We’re here at the birth of an idea?
P: Yeah, I think so, yes. LAUGHS. I hope so. Why not?

Next time you’re at an airport or train station anywhere in the world and you see someone who looks both confused and bemused, it may be Paul. If so, go up and say hi. You might want to tell him what sorts of signs and designs have helped you find what you needed simply, safely, and fast. He may want to try a few ideas of his own out on you. His latest is for the main destination travelers need to locate – usually at once – the bathroom. He’s thinking translucent walls. By the sinks. It would be a first. A place that speaks for itself. For further updates, as they say, watch this space.

T: Any other thoughts, Paul?
P: Let's have a drink.
T: Let's have a drink.

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