Why You Never Get Lost In An Airport

Directions are baked into the architecture of a well-designed airport. But they may also steer you toward Cinnabon on the way to your gate.

Why You Never Get Lost In An Airport
[Image: Flickr user Hideyuki KAMON]

The world’s busiest airport, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, serves around 95 million passengers a year, give or take. Its more than 200 gates stretch out over 6.8 million square feet. Despite its gargantuan size, anyone with even the slightest sense of direction should be able to navigate the airport with ease. In the new international terminal, at least, getting turned around is nearly impossible.


It’s an environmental graphic designer’s job to figure out how all those people will find their way around. Roman Mars’s excellent design podcast, 99% Invisible, talked to one such wayfinding expert, Jim Harding, who was responsible for shaping the space in the Atlanta airport’s new international terminal–designing everything from the tile patterns to how the service desks are angled and where concessions go in order to subconsciously nudge people in the right direction. There are many reasons air travel can be miserable, but getting lost in the airport shouldn’t be one of them.

When you first walk into the airport, everything is arranged to point you toward security. Ticket counters and even the pattern of the floor tiles are angled to draw you toward the horrors of the TSA, and three-story-tall windows help guide you in the direction of the planes. The wayfinding signage is designed to be dull and plain, so that it can stand apart from the neon glitz of all the marketing and advertising encouraging you to buy a Swatch or grab a McMuffin on your way to your gate.

Which gets at the other big goal of the signs here: to sell you stuff. Harding explains it this way:

I’m stressed, and I don’t think I’m going to make my connecting flight, am I going to take the time to open my wallet? Heck no! But if I’m cool calm collected, I find my gate, I know where I’m going, i’m more likely to stop and buy whatever. So that’s where wayfinding has a real financial impact on an airport’s bottom line.

Those tile patterns and angled passageways that subtly steer passengers toward their gates are also used to subtly steer them straight into retail stores hawking neck pillows and duty-free liquor, whose sales the airport profits from. They also nudge people into the food court, where a travel-weary soul may suddenly find himself purchasing an ill-advised Cinnabon.

Hear more about wayfinding from 99% Invisible.

About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.