Wayfinding Through the “New Normal”

Wayfinding signage kit displayed as icons

Wayfinding signage kit displayed as icons

Last month, we asked: how can empathic design lead our return to the workplace? GNP Realty Partners answers that question in action. We’ve been working with their team to design a wayfinding system to warmly welcome building customers back to 430 N Michigan. We spoke with Olivia Prais, RA, Vice President of Architecture & Development, to encapsulate GNP’s holistic process and approach to the project.

Wayfinding encompasses all of the ways in which people orient themselves in physical space and navigate from place to place. But for GNP, wayfinding represents far more than just physical signage and how people navigate their office building during COVID-19 — it also sets the stage for peace of mind, a way of being during each day at work and experiencing what the new normal looks like from here on out.

The “New Normal” is a Collaborative Journey

The global pandemic has taught us the importance of human connection, of tackling challenges together. Prais tells us how GNP has been encouraging just that, starting internally: “Through COVID-19, we started doing all-company Zoom calls at GNP. It quickly became a collaborative effort, rather than instruction coming from the top down. This active, authentic collaboration within our own ranks has set the stage for how we, as property managers, interact with the customers in buildings we manage.”

Shared experience made GNP deeply empathic to the concerns of their building tenants. “We’ve been paying attention to what our own staff members feel comfortable with in the office, how often they’re comfortable coming in and it’s become an exercise in understanding and open mindedness,” Prais says.

To actively engage in listening, GNP extended their conversations to the building’s owner and primary tenant — the National Association of Realtors (NAR). Together, they began a dialogue about what reopening 430 N Michigan would look like, consulting a survey NAR sent out to their Chicago employees for deeper understanding and further guidance. GNP also reached out to main contacts at each tenant company. As leadership, this communication and process of deep listening was key to determining the way forward.

Wayfinding signage that reads "Enter here, mask required"

Empathic Design in Practice

GNP approached Otherwise seeking wayfinding that would show customers how to move through the building as they transitioned through the revolving doors and made their way to their offices — while treating the return to work as a return to customers’ second home. Together, we created a smart, friendly and flexible wayfinding kit of parts centered on the message “Welcome home.”

The signage system, which includes 22 different elements, was designed to be its own inventive visual language. We employed shapes, colors, icons and typography that can be leveraged for endless permutations, with the ability to adapt to new messaging and applications as the need arises. “The whole system needs to remain flexible as we observe people’s behaviors in the building, and that way we can adapt,” explains David Frej, Chief Creative Director at Otherwise.

Wayfinding sign on an elevator door that reads "Mask required, please yield to exiting passengers" and has four people icons on it to show capacity

Otherwise began with eye-catching circular decals for both floor and wall stick-on application, while we made rectangular signage for standing marquees. Meanwhile, we selected a palette in vibrant, friendly hues — purposely avoiding the typical austere “caution” colors. “What is crucial,” says Frej, “is that we encourage a genuine sense of excitement and ease about being back in the workplace. Keeping the signage upbeat, bright and clear, we create a positive presence through the wayfinding that demonstrates how deeply management has thought through this return.” Inspired by the familiarity of Welcome home, we also fine tuned the signage language to be conversational and endearing, using phrases like please, thank you, hello and goodbye.

Taking the message of Welcome home to the next level, GNP put together care packages for returning customers. Encased in a tote with our custom Welcome back logo, the gift baskets include a special message and the personal necessities that help customers apply GNP’s wayfinding best practices for their own use. Even further, GNP produced a video tour to provide visual guidance through the newly reimagined office space. Together, these thoughtful components take the message of Welcome home and make it real. “The overarching theme,” says Prais, “is that we’re here to take care of you and cater to your needs as you return to the office.”

Wayfinding signage floor decal that reads "two-way traffic in elevator lobby"

“We knew from the beginning this would be a fluid process,” says Prais. Anticipating that circumstances will continue to shift, GNP knows the wayfinding kit of parts will serve as a robust inventory that will continue to expand. “The signage program is ever-evolving with the current state of things — so we can continue to respond to the needs of our tenants and incorporate their feedback to ensure everyone feels safe and at home,” says Prais.

As leaders during tumultuous times, it’s more important than ever to take into account the perspectives from those around us, and adapt thoughtfully, creatively and empathically. GNP isn’t just leading the way back to the office for their customers — they’re leading the way in empathic design for property managers across Chicago and beyond.