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Enhancing the Fairgoer Experience through Wayfinding

Wayfinding and Fairs
Wayfinding can enhance the fairgoer experience by directing traffic throughout the fairgrounds.

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How intuitive is your fairground design? Do fairgoers enter your fair and the only way to alleviate confusion on where to go first is look for a sign, or does the facility design encourage a curiosity though a range of features that reinforces the identity of your fair and enhances the fairgoer experience?

Obviously, the latter goal is what most fair managers and other stakeholders want their fairgrounds to achieve. The architectural term for this concept is wayfinding. According to Wikipedia: Wayfinding encompasses all of the ways in which people orient themselves in physical space and navigate from place to place.

For fairgrounds, the concept, if not new, has been underutilized. One of the highlights of Virtual Vision, the IAFE's online educational and workshop event, held in lieu of the COVID-cancelled convention, was a two part seminar on wayfinding and fairgrounds. The seminar was hosted by  Andrew Tisue from  Cuningham Group Architecture, Inc., which explored the eight key principals of wayfinding -- Create Identity, Landmarks, Well Structured Paths, Regions of Varied Visual Character, Limit Navigation Choices, Maps, Signage and Sightlines – to the unique challenges of fairgrounds.

Carnival Warehouse is taking a deep dive into wayfinding and fairgrounds, exploring how wayfinding can enhance the fairgoer experience, with an in-depth interview with Tisue, whose experience as a Project Architect with Cuningham includes both the Minnesota State Fair and the Wisconsin State Fair, as well as churches, malls, and theme parks.

Cunningham is responsible for the West End Market at the Minnesota State Fair, a revitalization project that has boosted attendance and revenue at the Great Get Together since opening in 2014. It is also the highest profile example of the many benefits of wayfinding in fairground design.

“Many of our facilities date back to the Depression and earlier, so we spent recent decades mostly on renovation,” said Jerry Hammer, General Manager, Minnesota State Fair. “The West End Market was the first real opportunity that we had to reinvent familiar elements in a brand new context.  On the day the Market opened, the best comment I heard was from a very happy fair visitor who said “I know where I am, but I don't know where I am!”


In 2019, the Minnesota State Fair introduced a new $16 million expansion including a new exhibit hall plus rows of pavilions for food, exhibitors and other attractions at the north end of the fairgrounds. 


Carnival Warehouse: Is Wayfinding a new concept for Fairground design?

Andrew Tisue:  I would venture to guess, when fair managers were thinking about the concept of wayfinding, from a design background, they tended to only think of signage. They feel we got to do something, to change people's mind, like how to find the bathrooms, When you want to design and layout a property, signage is a piece of that  strategy. Wayfinding is sort of intuitive, you want people to sort of get the idea and insitutively move around.  People will be influenced  on what they sense beginning with their arrival. It should be celebratory as they pass through the gates, to the threshold, if you will, of the fair. Do we go to get right, or left or straight ahead. You want them to decide without having to think too hard, or to be confused.

CW: What do you think fairs are getting right and wrong about wayfinding?

AT: In the parti (in Architect-speak, a parti is an organizing thought or decision behind an architect's design)  we've worked on with the Minnesota State Fair, and more recently with the Wisconsin State Fair, things on the fairgrounds develop over time. That's true for the big fairs and more so for the smaller fairs, there's existing buildings, small buildings and large buildings, exhibit halls, an administration building, and this vernacular has been evolving over time. So wayfinding is working within the layers that have been built over time. Solutions in the past addressed an address specific issue and fixed a specific problem, but over the years you don't want to have a cobbled together mess. Wayfinding is a big deal as you get more and more people on the fairgrounds on real popular days. Then, getting some of these wayfinding principles right is critical.

CW: Please excuse what might seem an obvious question, why?

AT: People's stress levels go higher when crowds are bigger and it's just physically more difficult to move around. The pinch points are those areas where the ability just to naturally flow or see where you're headed, to find a place to get off the beaten path to rest for a little bit, find somebody to meet, it just gets exacerbated when crows are super dense.

CW: What benefits for a fair result from effective wayfinding design?

AT: The sound bite if you will, is to extend fairgoers time on the ground, which translates into more revenue. From the guest's perspective,  you're having a good time there. If they're not having a good time, they're not going to stay and they're not going to come back. Our purpose, The Cuningham Group, is to uplift the human experience. If people are wandering around and it's too hot and there's not enough shade, they're going to spend four hours and not six hours and that's not good for the fair and it's not good for business.  

CW: The Minnesota State Fair is one of the most iconic fairs in the country. What were your wayfinding goals with the West End Market design?

AT:  There was an area, Heritage Square, which was around 40 years old, and that became the West End Market. The West End Market was a combination of bringing people into the northwest side of the fair as opposed to the south – they see a huge volume, there was a big problem with people getting off all these buses in the south – and it alleviated them from having to cross a busy street.  The West End Market itself was born out of this need to not only create a new gate, but to do something about the Heritage Square. And in doing something about it, we were able to create a whole definition into itself. You are kind of pulling away pressure from the whole grounds by giving folks this area to go check out. It was more successful than any of us thought in the beginning. In the beginning we just thought we had to do something about this old Heritage Square area. Then the parti, the layout of the West End Market itself, is really simple. It is a pinwheel layout, where you can very easily come into the space and center yourself  there, get a 360 degree lay-of-the-land, and see where the museum is, the restaurants, the shops, the theater and so forth. You got a good eye on all of that. As you start moving around, there's elements of discovery, lots of different corners to turn, but it always reorients itself back to the center. You're not confused about finding a way back or way you came from.  


CW: How important was it for the new structures you were building as part of the Masterplan  blend with the WPA-era and other buildings on the Minnesota State Fair?

AT: When it comes to building design itself, if there's a new building that's coming up, if there's an old building, especially an historical one from the WPA era, the design should be born out of the vision of the client. The vision of the West End Market was to showcase the vendors, who had been in Heritage Square a long time. Most of these vendors made goods by hand, so the architecture of the new buildings, the design showed off how the structures were built, it was very tectonic, you could see all the connections, it was simple materials, wood and steel and so forth. So, that was the design result for the area.

But in this particular area, there weren't that many historical buildings to work around, but somethings needed to be addressed. One of them was an old log cabin, a 19th century log cabin. What we did with that was to relocate it, so it was preserved, and it was something you discovered. I'm trying to remember what the other ones were.

It was a tiny little log cabin. It wasn't the Warner Coliseum. But in other cases, old buildings are opportunities and I would certainly preserve them. In other cases, the strategy would be how can we use that as an anchor or a landmark. How can we respect that building? But, the strategy is not to make new architecture look like old architecture. That was a criticism that we heard, why do these new buildings look so modern? And they certainly could've been designed to look like something from centuries or decades ago, but Jerry Hammer, the general manager of the Minnesota State Fair, he and his team feel very passionately that architecture should reflect the tools, technology and values we hold today, not try to emulate or mimic something from the past. If you look back at the buildings on their grounds, you can get a feeling for what that time period was about because in part, the buildings represent that. It can be backwards thinking to sort of fake it and make new stuff look like old stuff.

CW: Even though the West End Market was a standalone project,  were you able  incorporate some wayfinding  concepts throughout the fairgrounds?

AT: Before the West End Market project was begun, we actually had done a comprehensive study of the fairgrounds mostly to understand and distill what is there is now, what are the strengths and opportunities of the fairgrounds. A couple of things that came out that were these sorts of zones and neighborhoods that everybody understands. That kind of got the gears turning. How do we take advantage of this very agriculture-focused area versus a very distinct food and beverage sort of area. There wasn't a big design solution that came of that idea, but that sort of teed up the idea that the West End market is its own place, its own neighborhood. We talked about how we transformed Heritage Square. But we also transformed the North End. That whole area was undefined, this was a place but it really isn't yet. So we transform this place that historically has not been too popular. That sort of clarity of wayfinding on grounds as different neighborhoods, so how we transform that place into an anchor, and led us to thinking of all the different entry points. So, we made each one familiar, yet distinct, so you don't get confused. That led us to thinking how do we make each entry point functional, maintainable, and safe and have its own identity. Those were the sort of ideas that were discussed in the initial master planning.

CW: Of the eight objectives of Wayfinding –Create Identity, Use Landmarks, Well Structured Paths, Regions of Varied Visual Character, Limit Navigation Choices, Maps, Signage, Sightlines – which one is the most vital for fairs (or one that lends itself most naturally to fairs)?


AT: We already talked about signage and to encourage them not just rely on that. What we would encourage fairs first and foremost to get right, would be the well-structured paths. Fairs should start thinking critically right now of circulation, and when we do that how do we do so with paths that would support our guests. The rest of it can start to get filled out after that. If you start thinking about that and how people will start moving around, then you can think about the sightlines to the landmarks and so forth. What you don't to do is say we need a new expo hall, then build a 200,000-square-foot expo hall in a place where 20 years later you say, why did we put this here? The paths have a beginning, if there's an expo hall in the very corner, and you have people going on a path to a dead end. Maybe the expo hall would have been better place with paths all the way around, in the center of something.

CW: The heart of many fairs is the midway – rides, foods, & games – how can wayfinding concepts best be utilized in the fair's midway?

AT: Full disclosure, we don't get into midway layout.  What we've seen in Minnesota it's kind of on the edge. In Wisconsin it's at the main entrance midway and along the main artery which goes right through it, with the kids rides on one side and the adults rides on the other. That's a nice layout. You're giving people the opportunity to move right through it, while soaking in the excitement and the lights. You're giving people a place to meet in between. In that case, it's the first piece of the story you get when you come into the fairgrounds. Minnesota is more like a distinct zone where you come in and come out on the side of it. One of the less publicized concepts of the design was to create another path around the midway to help get around that  bottle neck.  Part of the cause of the bottleneck was people stopping and looking up at the people spinning above them in the air. One solution is to move the taller rides towards the end of the midway, and use them as landmarks. People can be halfway across the grounds and see the midway and be attracted to go there. It's better than having the tall rides right at the front door so people stop there, jamming things up.

CW: They look up further down the midway, not at the bottleneck.

AT: Yes. Within the midway itself, I can imagine a horseshoe parti, a horseshoe layout, which you find in a lot of places,. You got a ring around, all the rides face the inside of the horseshoe. Then beyond that you have all the back-of-house stuff, and down the middle of the horseshoe you have  food & beverage, and games,  the bathrooms. As you make your way through the midway you can stop for something to drink and not get in the way of other people.   

CW: Can Wayfinding be applied  to midways?

AT: The midway is so temporal, almost 100 percent of it is in what is  just big parking lot for most of the year. Then all the carnies show up and set up their rigs. All of a sudden you've just created an identity. Just by the nature of how those things work, wayfinding uses landmark and the midway is a landmark in-and-of-itself. We haven't worked with many smaller fairs, but I would imagine that the midway itself takes up a lot of their grounds. Is that the focal point?  If so, that the midway is in the middle and everything else sort of lines the edges. Or is it the inverse, you line the edges with the rides and everything else is in the middle, kind of a total inverse. With wayfinding there's a way to make the midway and everything else at the fair become more interwoven, rather than having the midways in a parking lot way over there and just make the best of it. If you have to walk over curbs and broken paths to get to the midway it is very un-ceremonial.

CW: Many fairgrounds are nonprofits with tight budgets. What elements of wayfinding are the easiest to implement when funding is an issue?

AT: I was approached a few years ago, at the IAFE convention, after our first presentation there, by a lady from a county fair. They were struggling with this kind of sidewalk that went around this depressed (meaning: “lower than the surrounding area”) area. I remember her saying people didn't know they should go over there. Without having any context or seeing what she was talking about, we discussed how she could use just lights, stream lights, drape them over people's heads. It's very inexpensive, get some poles and stream lights. You can create this very cool atmosphere.

You feel sort of enclosed and protected under this canopy. You can use that to literally guide people to where you want them to go. Maybe this depressed area can become a little amphitheater of some sort. People can sit on the hill, something is happening there, maybe music or something. People like to watch people and are drawn to where other people are. You don't have to re-layout your entire grounds. Just start thinking about getting people to go where you want them to go and removing the barriers to that.


CW: Will there be any lingering effects in fairground design from the COVID pandemic?

AT: It's a great question. How do we make spaces more safe will be a continuing concern. Aside from social distancing and having hand sanitizing stations, wayfinding can be used to keep people more spread out. It will have a lasting effect on building design, making entrances bigger so people can move in and out more easily. Restrooms will be made more spacious and less cramped.

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