Sign and Environmental Interpretation
The Bengal tigers, living deep in the jungle, mark their territory by leaving scratches and droppings behind. Migratory birds,high in the sky, navigate back to their nests by recognizing mountains, rivers and farmlands. Dogs in the urban areas are able to cross the jostling pedestrian flow and dangerous traffic and return to their homes as they have scent marked their path with urine at the wire poles. Compared to animals, people are better at environmental recognition, not being dependent on our inborn instinct but on the established codes — symbols that bear cultural meanings and commonly understood information.
The Europeans who invaded and colonized North American in the early years were often lured by the indigenous people into the deep forest, who later found themselves lost, stuck and shot, because they were unable to recognize the faint information in the natural environment or the signage on the trunks and ground. For the Europeans, deciphering the faint information in the woods was like reading a book in a foreign language. Certainly, the experience of getting lost has not escaped our ancestors. In fact, the origin of civilizations could be said to be this identification and reading of the landscape. The hieroglyphic symbols came into being, as an interpretation of the shapes, forms and textures of the land, such as mountains and waters, plants, birds and animals. As a result, landscape was the source of these hieroglyphic characters, and the origin of civilization. This recognition of landscape has defined the position of human beings in the world, established our existence, and distinguishing mankind from all other animals.
Due to the difference in environments, spatial separation and segregation, a myriad of cultural symbolisms arose from each place, such as the hieroglyphic Chinese characters, the Tomba script used by the Naxi ethnic minority in southwest China, the Mayan script, and the ancient Babylonian cuneiform. Either as ancient or living languages, these symbols can be found in numerous forms around the world. Whether as backpackers who accidentally wander into remote villages, or as travelers in foreign metropolises, they are confronted by many unfamiliar cultural symbols, with are rich and laden with cultural meaning to its people. They once again found themselves lost and disorientated. As a result, it has become a challenge facing the designers of signage and environmental interpretation systems. In the context of globalization, signage and wayfinding has become important design elements, designing cross-cultural signage and symbols, interpreting the local, natural and cultural context, to guide and help people to make sense and navigate through our complex environments. This challenge has also made the design of signage and environmental interpretation system both ancient and new, as both a science and an art.
Having its origin in landscapes, we are now returning to the landscape to help mark and interpret our contemporary cities. This is a path both familiar and strange.