By Curt Wozniak
Photography by Michael Buck
shortest path between two points is always a straight
line. When that path crosses an unfamiliar urban
environment, however, finding it can be as difficult
as fishing out a single thread from a swimming
pool of yarn.
For many Grand Rapidians, connecting
downtown destination points is fairly simple navigation.
It’s not so simple for visitors. One-way
streets thwart direct routes. Avenues bend into
diagonals, breaking the grid to follow the curve
of the Grand River. And the lack of a common language
among locals (Is it Plaza Towers or the Downtown
Courtyard by Marriott?) can make asking for directions
As director of galleries and collections
for Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids
Home & Design Advisory Panel member Henry
Matthews regularly hosts visiting artists. Their
finding their way around the city become his
Unless you’re taking a taxi, you’re
in deep ca-ca just trying to find your hotel,” Matthews
observed. “But let’s say at some point
you actually find it. … That’s just
one visitor, but on some level, that is a very
important visitor, because if they don’t
have a good experience, if they can’t figure
out how to get anywhere, why would they ever want
to come back or tell anyone else to come here?”
The Downtown Management Board
began discussing ways to improve visitors’ experiences
during the 1990s. Money was tight, however, and
dissolved before taking any action.
In 1999, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA)
revived the discussion, hiring Corbin Design to
organize a wayfinding system for the city. Based
in Traverse City since 1976, Corbin Design has
developed similar systems for Atlanta, Los Angeles
and nearly 30 other municipalities, as well as
several corporate campuses, hospitals and universities.
In June 2000 the DDA tabled the wayfinding system,
due to funding problems, but it remained a priority,
said Assistant City Planner and DDA Executive Director
Jay Fowler. In 2003, Corbin resumed design work.
By the end of next month, 135 wayfinding signs
will be installed in and around downtown at a total
cost of just over $1.5 million.
In their 1992 book, “Wayfinding: People,
Signs and Architecture,” signage pioneer
Paul Arthur and environmental psychologist Romedi
Passini defined wayfinding as “the strategies
that people use to find their way in familiar or
new settings, based on their perceptual and cognitive
abilities and habits.” Grand Rapids’ new
signage system provides such a strategy.
We all have our own view of environment,” explained
Jeff Corbin, Corbin Design founder. “We call
that an ‘egocentric’ view. Your egocentric
view of Grand Rapids is probably very different
as a resident than that of a visitor.”
He continued, “The wayfinding side of this
is what we call an ‘exocentric’ view.
That is, an understanding of the totality or the
whole of something. That’s kind of what wayfinding
does. We try to define an environment so that everybody
can form their own egocentric view based on the
same exocentric view.”
In downtown Grand Rapids, the environment will
be defined by four color-coded districts, bordered
on the north by Michigan/Bridge Street, on the
south by Wealthy Street, on the east by Prospect
Avenue and on the west by Seward Avenue.
The districts — CenterCity, HeartSide, HillSide
and WestSide — provide the first level in
the system’s information hierarchy. Welcome
signs identify each district as visitors enter.
Vehicular directional signs guide visitors from
one district to another or to 40 specific public
destinations in or near downtown. Parking ramps
and surface lots identify their district and feature
pedestrian maps. It breaks down like this, said
Corbin: “We’re going to get you close.
We’re going to get you parked. And then you’ll
be able to walk to your desired destination.”
City dwellers might experience
confusion when confronted with the fact that
what was once the Theater District, “Pill
Hill,” Grand Rapids Community College and
the western edge of Heritage Hill, is now one district
(HillSide). Of course, city dwellers probably already
have an effective strategy for finding their way
The focus here really is on visitors who are coming
downtown,” Fowler explained.
Downtown Grand Rapids is becoming more of a visitor
destination,” he said. “The Van Andel
Arena brings in around a million people per year,
many of whom are not familiar with the downtown
area. We hope the opening of DeVos Place will bring
another million people who are even less familiar,
because they’re less apt to be from West
Michigan. And we have so many other great venues
downtown that all attract people for various events … so
the whole idea is to make people who are unfamiliar
with the city more comfortable finding their destination.”
If, as with Henry Matthews’ hypothetical
visitor, one’s downtown starting point is
a hotel room, Corbin’s system promises tremendous
improvements. If, however, that visitor’s
experience begins at the Gerald R. Ford International
Airport, problems remain.
“We worked long and hard with MDOT to try to incorporate these symbols
along the freeways, so that you might know which exit to get off to get to HeartSide,
or which exit to get off to get to CenterCity,” Corbin said. “We
were not successful.”
Corbin has been successful with such endeavors in other states. State departments
of transportation in Colorado, Indiana and Missouri all allowed the introduction
of wayfinding signage along their freeways in urban centers.
Just as some families are better at making houseguests feel welcome, wayfinding
is a choice made by cities that want to emphasize its benefits.
You can tell a lot about a city by how it treats its visitors,” Corbin
said. “Once this system is up, I think downtown Grand Rapids is going
to be a much friendlier place.” GR