Find Your Way with Jessica Sato

Here at Bespoken, we focus on how people communicate vocally, physically and intentionally, but we love talking about effective communication of all kinds. Jessica Sato is a designer serving major institutional and corporate clients, including NYU Langone Medical Center, Johnson & Johnson, the Environmental Defense Fund, and L’Oréal/Lancôme, as well as small businesses and startups. She earned a BS in Mechanical Engineering with a minor in Art Practice from the University of California at Berkeley and an MID in Industrial Design from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Her focus is improving human experience via egalitarian design. We sat down with Jessica to talk signage, how wayfinding gets people from A-to-B, and #BikeNYC!

Tell us about wayfinding. How does being a wayfinder affect the way you interact with the world?

Wayfinding refers to systems of signs, maps, and other cues/tools that help the general public ("users") navigate through spaces. It is often coupled with branding, which describes the elements—graphics, language, even music, smells, etc—that build a brand in the minds of these users. Wayfinding is important in spaces large and unified enough to warrant this degree of attention like hospitals, stadiums, campuses, and communities.

I was a "wayfinder" before I knew that wayfinding was a profession. I've lived in lots of places and always needed to feel oriented in order to feel comfortable. My mother likes telling people that I would tell them where to drive from my car seat. As I've gotten older and become a professional, I have developed a habit of analyzing every environment I'm in for its signage, the impact humans have had on the space, and how the space changes over time.

How does communication factor into wayfinding?

Wayfinding is a key way that a place communicates to its users that it cares. Through effective wayfinding, users trust and relax in a space, often without knowing that they are building this relationship. We all already know this is true when we think back on times when this relationship has failed to form: when we've been lost, misdirected, or felt downright antagonized by a place. We take it personally.

Communication is also key behind the scenes in the professional practice of wayfinding. No single person can define the wayfinding of a place. Often whole departments, companies, and stakeholders need to align in order for this all to make sense to the user.

What's the first thing you consider when figuring out how to get people where they're going?

I first ask who they are. This will determine where they will be looking, what they will understand, and what kind of attention we can expect them to give to the information at hand.

How do design choices enter into your process?

At my current position, we have a thick Standards Manual that determines most of the wayfinding design basics, though we often have to improvise. What we do is primarily utilitarian, so the objective is to harmonize and highlight but never detract. Accessibility, legibility, and simplicity are our priorities so that what gets installed is effective.

You've got a background in mechanical engineering—how does that impact what you do now?

Well, there is a lot of counting in this job. Quantifying and problem solving. Taking stock of the variables/parameters, determining the right operation/transformation, and then documenting the results/outcomes. It's kind of like a scientific process. Although I haven't really worked as an engineer, I suppose the coursework I did in college showed me that problems can be much more complex (at least mathematically) than the ones I am currently tasked with solving. And I appreciate colleagues with and without technical backgrounds, which helps us clearly communicate.

You're also a #BikeNYC commuter. Why do you bike?

I love biking in NYC. I love that on a bike I get to see the city at a different speed, temperature, and height than on foot, in a train, or by car. It's like an alternate reality. Cycling signage and infrastructure has improved so incredibly since I arrived in 2006. The growing number of cyclists is necessitating that rules and enforcement of rules evolve. Bikes are not cars, nor are they pedestrians. And NYC pedestrians are unstoppable! I'm not sure how this will look in NYC, but there are many precedents worldwide. Wayfinding will be key in communicating this to the public.

What's your favorite sign—literal or metaphorical?

My first favorite song was literally "The Sign" by Ace of Base. I can't choose a favorite sign, really. Perhaps Google Maps—I still can't believe that exists. And in the physical world, everyday I'm amazed that mostly signs are in the right places, saying the right things clearly, despite all that pushes our environment toward chaos.

If you could design a sign to be placed anywhere in the world and say anything, where would it be and what would it say?

At heart I only use resources when necessary. Also, really big signs that people know and love (or sometimes hate) are almost always "grandfathered" and no longer allowed under current building codes. That said, I love so many old signs that have been allowed to remain. And old signs layered on top of old signs, even when no longer relevant to what's there now. Additionally, I often notice and appreciate impromptu, often illegal street art. So this is hard for me to answer! Perhaps I'll steal my answer from my colleague, who fantasizes about wrapping one of our neighboring towers in crochet. I'd love for this to be a community project that sources only biodegradable, donated, otherwise unused yarn. There would be no words and no waste and it would be astonishing.