Best in Category - Communication Design 2023

Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne: Wayfinding Design

Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria / Studio Binocular / Aspect Studios / Greenaway Architects / Deakin University

A contemporary, industry-leading wayfinding system, using the International Indigenous Design Charter to bring the Gardens' story to life.

Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria’s (RBGV) new wayfinding and interpretation system is a fully integrated physical and digital system designed to enhance navigation and discovery for the 2 million+ visitors who stroll through the Gardens’ gates each year. Applying the International Indigenous Design Charter (IIDC) and a First Peoples-led approach, the design embeds and enlivens RBGV's Interpretation and Storytelling framework.

This layered approach connects 60,000+ years of history to a contemporary, digitally-integrated wayfinding and interpretation system. Combining excellence in design, practical wayfinding, placemaking and digital interpretation, it brings the Gardens experience to life for new and existing visitors.

Design Brief:

The brief for a new wayfinding system for the Melbourne Gardens responded to a critical need to replace ageing and inadequate wayfinding signage with a contemporary, world-class system, addressing multiple wayfinding challenges and unique site constraints. Developed in collaboration with Deakin Design, the brief also required the integration of First Peoples-led design translation – working to the IIDC – to reflect the Gardens’ deep commitment to reconciliation. The new system was to be informed by RBGV’s Interpretation Framework – for wayfinding to be an experience in its own right, anchoring visitors in Country and enabling diverse visitors to successfully navigate and discover the Melbourne Gardens. The brief called for the implementation of best practice principles in user-led design, interpretation, accessibility, sustainability and safety. For budget and sustainability, existing infrastructure was to be reused where possible, bringing legibility to a complex site while responding empathetically to its heritage landscape and architecture.

This project was developed by:

Design Process

The creative team – appointed through an EOI process – included Studio Binocular and Aspect Studios, working with Jefa Greenaway (Wailwan|Kamilaroi + D’harawal) Director of Greenaway Architects, as cultural design lead. Greenshoot Consulting led the Traditional Owner consultation, which also informed the concurrent development of RBGV’s Interpretation and Storytelling Framework with Freeman Ryan Design.

Responding to extensive audits and user research provided by RBGV and Deakin Design, the design team undertook further site visits, consultation and design workshops to help inform the creative concepts.

Three design concepts were presented to a selection panel, and one selected concept was refined through collaboration between the Gardens team, wayfinding and digital design specialists, First Nations design translation, digital developers and Traditional Owners.

In advancing the design, the team adopted an iterative approach across many different platforms:

Physical signage:

Significant prototyping of the physical signs was undertaken – helping to establish a buildable approach for a product which had never been designed or built before. The team worked with fabricators to develop an innovative stacking system, helping to maintain the integrity and durability of materials. Systems were also developed to retrofit existing signage assets.

Digital wayfinding:

Studio Binocular worked to conceptualise the digital wayfinding system, creating user journeys and flows through wireframes, to test the buildability of the digital interface. The team collaborated with the developers of the main RBGV website to ensure full integration with their existing CMS, and began a process of digital prototyping and refinement before undertaking the complex build. Further user testing was undertaken on site to refine the design post-build.

Content development and placement:

Developing the content for a system like this is a complex task, and the team undertook rigorous site walk-throughs and a detailed planning phase to ensure that the right information was delivered at the right time.

Design Excellence

This project sets a new benchmark for design excellence in process, aesthetics, quality, functional outcome, sustainability and collaborators’ commitment to the International Indigenous Design Charter.

The final wayfinding system provides an integrated approach which connects 60,000+ years of history to a contemporary, digitally-connected wayfinding and interpretation system. It is not only designed to help people get from A to B, but to also tell the rich story of the Gardens along the way – integrating practical wayfinding information together with placemaking and digital interpretation, to help bring the Gardens experience to life for a new generation of visitors.

Colour choice and pattern motifs central to the design were a result of Greenaway Architects and Greenshoot Consulting’s work with Traditional Owners. Greenshoot prepared cultural and historical mapping documents for the Melbourne site. As cultural design lead, Jefa drew on the cultural mapping insights to map the Gardens to reflect the primacy of Country including high points, cultural gathering spaces, eucalypt woodlands and water (former course of the Birrarung/Yarra River).

RBGV provided plant species indigenous to Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Country from which colour tones were amplified to create a contemporary voice for the Gardens. Permission was given to use Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung language alongside colours, and the Bacchus Marsh Wattle Acacia rostriformis inspired a pattern repeated across the signage.

The innovative reimagining of the Gardens’ mapping system – with six times the number of mapped panels installed within the Gardens – has greatly improved the legibility and user experience in Melbourne Gardens, as visitors navigate their way through its complex path network.

And the seamless integration of physical and digital mapping across the site provides a fully integrated user experience – giving visitors navigational autonomy, and enabling different types of users to discover the Gardens in different ways.

Design Innovation

This first-of-its-kind design sets a new bar for navigating our public spaces, innovating in a number of domains:

Integrated use of technology:

The innovative system honours the past while successfully connecting traditional wayfinding and interpretive signage systems with new technology to provide a richer, more digitally connected experience within the Gardens. Traditional signage has been completely reimagined, with heads-up mapped panels replacing fingerboards to give users a deeper understanding of their context. A system of QR codes then connects users to interactive mapping and rich interpretive information on their mobile devices. The interactive mapping connects to a Google map base with a customised look – to tie in with the physical and printed mapping design across the site. The latest technology enables users to filter by interest area; better understand the stories of plants; and locate themselves to find the fastest route through the complex path network.

Forging a new path to integrate First Peoples’ knowledge:

Importantly, the project represents a key innovation in the way we approach working with Traditional Owners and translating their knowledge and expertise across the design process. It provides a test-case for collaboration, and forges a new path to build public understanding of local First Peoples language and pre-colonial history in our public spaces.

New approaches to practical challenges:

A kit of parts system was designed from scratch to allow for flexibility and longevity. This also included solutions to the complex requirements for temporary signage - incorporating opportunities to relay changing messages and promotions seasonally across the site.

The digital interpretation platform provides a flexible alternative to physical signage, allowing the Gardens to more readily update content. As a browser-based platform, it doesn’t require users to download an app – making the information accessible and allowing users to ‘dip-in and dip-out’ throughout their journey.

Design Impact

This project could have progressed with a white/western view of the world, but RBGV insisted on grasping a once in a generation opportunity to address the colonised nature of both their organisation and its land. At a time of Voice, Truth, Treaty in Victoria, this project demanded a non-Western approach which consisted of multiple consultations and iterations, and permissions and support from Traditional Owners.

‘The significance of this case study should not be understated as Australia moves towards formal recognition of its Indigenous history, “If we change the way we look at things, then the things we look at need to change”. The Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria wayfinding project represents courageous leadership and sets a new level of cultural respect and best practice standards for Australian and the world’
– Dr Russell Kennedy, Deakin University and Co-Author of the Indigenous Design Charter

The project sets a new bar for communication design in Victoria, Australia and internationally for one of our most visited and most loved cultural institutions. It uses the power of design and technology to share stories of our past and our future through the wonderful world of plants.

Following on from the experience of working with Deakin University, RBGV is currently participating in the ARC Indigenous Discovery project "Protocols for Indigenous-led creative practice" at Monash Art Design and Architecture and Deakin University, sharing our experience of how we implemented the International Indigenous Design Charter in the wayfinding project.

The final system is aesthetically stunning and meaningfully connected to Country. It is practical, user friendly and displays a truly Victorian approach and character. It has enabled RBGV to develop much stronger relationships with Traditional Owners and developed the literacy of a number of design professionals in working with First Peoples-led design and the Charter.

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