Startle wayfinding

Axel Peemoeller’s wayfinding system for the Melbourne Eureka Tower Carpark has been making the internet rounds. Props to him, it’s a novel and eyecatching design. (See below for one example from his site.) But something about it makes me think it’s disorienting (and possibly dangerous) for drivers. Let me try and articulate my amateur cognitive science/interaction design theory to explain.

Peemoeller’s OUT

While driving, your brain’s 3D systems are in high gear. (Pardon the pun.) Your mind is tuned to look for positioning cues such as occlusion, parallax, and especially size changes. This last is most important, as your visual system is on the lookout for anything that suddenly grows larger than the things around it, which would be a clear sign that you’re about to hit something. It’s called the startle response, and it happens within about 80 milliseconds, far too fast for any rational processing to counteract it.

So now, think of yourself in the Eureka Tower Carpark. Turning a corner, you’re a little confounded by the strange and lovely colored shapes on the wall. What’s going on here? All of a sudden, your visual system puts all these shapes together in a way that could only make sense if there was something (in this case, typography) jumping out right in front of you. Your gut reaction should be to slam on the brakes, even if your logical brain can decipher the thing a few milliseconds later. Hopefully the driver behind you left enough room.

So I haven’t been there, and I don’t know if this conjecture bears out in fact, but the pictures certainly set off my startle reaction.

1 Comment

Chris Noessel
Update: Looks like someone else has subsequently had the same thought, but done it one better. Rather than just letting the appearance of typography jump out at you, these folks add in a driver's concern for fellow humans. http://www.moillusions.com/2010/09/safety-optical-illusion-fail.html

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