"Down and out." Those were the instructions. It seemed funny, since I've spent much of my life working hard to avoid being "down and out" anywhere. But here at Dulles International, in Washington, DC, "down and out" was looking like the path to salvation. We'd spent half an eternity wandering around looking for our luggage and the other half looking for the taxis. Following the tunnel "down" would bring us to "out," presumably to freedom.
I don't pretend to be an airport expert, but I am a frequent traveller, and often wonder why airports don't communicate better. They seem to hide all useful information. You can find arrivals information when you're trying to locate your departure gate. You can find departure gates when you're looking for your checked baggage. Once you find the baggage carousels, there's no clue to indicate which one will produce the luggage from your flight. Pick up your bag, and you get to solve the mystery of where to get the shuttle or taxi. And why does every airplane trip seem to involve a secret bus or train to get you to your terminal, your plane, or your baggage?
How a building communicates, whether through logical design, clear signage, or posting friendly, knowledgeable people at strategic spots, is critical to our experience. Flying is stressful enough these days without the buildings at either end compounding our anxiety by confusing us.
Do the people who design such places forget the context of their communication? I get the impression that they imagine that the building is all there is. But these places are full of people. The nonverbal language of these public spaces must work when they are filled with people - tired, hungry, disoriented people in a hurry, dragging luggage, laptops, and small children. The artists renderings of architects' building designs usually show one or two people - never the hundreds that swarm around us as we move through a major airport in reality.
Like these designers, we sometimes fail to take note of the context of our communication. Whether it's spoken or written, what is happening with the people involved or affected needs to shape the message. Otherwise, they're lost and confused and searching for the exit.
I'm in Washington for the annual conference of IABC, the professional association of business communicators. I'll be sharing my learning and my impressions through the week.