Led Zeppelin. The Rolling Stones. The Beatles. Eric Clapton. Van Halen.
Let’s start off with a little quiz. Which one of the above doesn’t belong?
Maybe you’re thinking Eric Clapton because he’s the only single artist, not a band, on the list. Or maybe Van Halen because their heyday was in the 1980s, and the others were a decade or two before. But you’d be wrong on both counts. The outlier in this list is actually the Beatles. All the rest of the artists are linked by one person: a man named Andy Johns.
Cavernous, thunderous, terrifying even, the opening bars of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” constitute possibly the most beloved drum intro of all time. The track, and especially that intro, is seminal, a sonic benchmark thousands of bands, including some of the most successful acts in rock history, aimed for or were inspired by. As the music recording magazine Sound on Sound noted in a piece on drum recording, it’s “one of the most sought-after sounds in rock.” The drum loop has also been widely sampled all over the musical map, from the Beastie Boys to Björk, Eminem to Enigma. Even if you don’t know “When the Levee Breaks,” you’ve heard these drums or their imitations.
Ubiquitous now, we take for granted how radical the sonics of (Zeppelin drummer) John Bonham’s drums were in 1971, when the band’s fourth album was released. As studio technologies were advancing at the time, the trend was toward more mics and more gear in general. On many recordings of the era bands were using multiple mics on the drum kit, usually with one near the bass drum. Also, for some time a more “deadened” and close drum sound, popularized by the Beatles’ later recordings, had been gaining popularity. Yet Johns, as the album’s recording engineer, the person responsible for getting the band’s sounds on tape, tried something counterintuitive, and revolutionary in a way, to achieve such an exceptionally massive sound—he took just two microphones and hung them over a banister high above a staircase that was in the room where Bonham was pounding away. (The band recorded in an eighteenth-century country house rather than a traditional studio, enabling them to incorporate its varied acoustics, such as the stairwell, in the recordings.) He also compressed the signal and ran it through an echo unit, effects which, utilized together, made the overall performance sound simultaneously louder yet more distant, key to its mesmerizing quality.
When we think of our favorite songs, we think of the artists performing them. Perhaps if you’re a serious music fan, you’ll know who produced the tracks. But we never think of the engineer, which truly is an oversight. The unusual production on “When the Levee Breaks” is “arguably one of the most significant factors in its popularity and longevity,” wrote Aaron Liu-Rosenbaum, now a professor of Music Technology at Laval University in Quebec, in the Journal on the Art of Record Production.
Johns didn’t achieve this sound alone. Of course, Bonham’s performance is what this all rests on, and Jimmy Page, the band’s guitar player and producer, is widely credited, and rightfully so, as the mastermind behind much of Zeppelin’s oeuvre. But it takes nothing away from Page and Bonham to acknowledge Johns’s critical role. He was a highly skilled craftsman, who married a deep technical knowledge with an artistic gift for knowing how to get that sound on so many recordings. Beyond Led Zeppelin IV, Johns engineered nearly all of that band’s most successful records, plus the Rolling Stones classics Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street, and numerous other acclaimed albums. This man’s stamp is on some of the most widely shared cultural touchstones of a generation. Yet, other than a blip of recognition following his death in April 2013, he, and his work, have remained invisible.
7:30 p.m. Peter Canby shuffles a stack of marked-up article proofs, flicks off his desk lamp, and finally shuts down his iMac for the day. He has pored over a journalist’s notes for a particularly sensitive piece, double-checked quotes from a “blind” source formerly in the CIA, held a meeting with a writer and his magazine’s attorney over concerns of libel, and instructed a new employee that she needed to be versed in the vocabulary of genetic coding before attending a screening of the sci-fi flick Prometheus, because its review, which she later had to check, had a line about a disintegrating humanoid’s “DNA-laden chromosomes” sinking into water. No minutia is too minute for the fact-checkers Canby oversees at The New Yorker. The requirements to work in his department, beyond possessing a savant level of meticulousness, are stiff. More than half of the sixteen fact-checkers are fluent in a second language, among them Mandarin, Hebrew, Arabic, Urdu, and Russian, along with the usual French and Spanish; the majority have advanced degrees, including the expected Journalism and Comp. Lit. masters, plus an LSE grad, and the errant Oxford PhD program dropout; and “many stay only a few years before leaving because the pace is brutal,” says Canby.
The fact-checking department’s work is an unseen anchor to the celebrated writing that makes this august magazine’s reputation. “We influence the way our journalists do their reporting and how editors edit their pieces,” says Canby, who has led the department since 1994. And yet Canby and the fact-checkers at The New Yorker know you will not see their names in the magazine. No bylines, no biographical sketches that the authors enjoy. They are invisible to the reader. That is, unless they make a mistake.
Canby and his charges are by any account extremely bright, hardworking people whose traits could likely bring them success in myriad jobs, in journalism or elsewhere, that would gain them some recognition from the reader or other end user. But Canby relishes the behind-the-scenes work. “Even though our names aren’t out there we take a great deal of pride in the final product, being part of a process that contributes to the way people think about issues of the day,” he says. “That’s our satisfaction.”
Understandably, we forget that there are people like Peter Canby and Andy Johns making things happen for the stars out front. By the nature of their work, they don’t make themselves known. And today, by many accounts, increasingly fewer people with the means to choose their career are pursuing paths like theirs, where they and the results of their labor are invisible. But Canby, Johns, and others like them know something that you will be surprised to learn: receiving outward credit for your work is overrated.
How do you define success? If your search for prosperity is based on an arms race of external rewards and tireless self-promotion, of one-upmanship, the kind where frantic parents hold their kindergarteners back a year to theoretically give them a leg up over their younger peers—a trend known as “redshirting”—then you are free to pursue this too-often futile course toward alpha dog status. But if you come to define success, in both business and in life, as philosophers and religions have for millennia, by the satisfaction derived from work itself and not the degree of attention you receive for it, people like Johns and Canby—the Invisibles—offer a model you would do well to follow. Ask yourself: Do I want to be on a treadmill of competition with others, or do I want to find lasting reward by challenging myself?
I started exploring a group I’ve named the Invisibles because I was fascinated by people who chose to do work that required extensive training and expertise, that was critical to whatever enterprise they were a part of, yet knowingly and contentedly, they rarely, if ever, were known by, let alone received credit from, the outside world for their labor. What makes Invisibles so captivating is that they are achieving enviable levels of fulfillment from their work, yet their approach is near antithetical to that of our culture at large. What exactly are they doing, how are they living that brings them such attainment at the office and internal satisfaction?
The traits of Invisibles are not only consistent with classic tenets of a rich life, but also, as copious research attests, characteristics of business and leadership success. (And workers who embody Invisible traits not only elevate themselves, but improve whatever enterprise they are a part of.) People need to have a commitment to expertise, to find joy in the work itself, and have the will to place responsibility on their shoulders if they’re going to excel in any endeavor. Indeed, even for the most visible among us—people like NFL quarterbacks, who spend countless private hours silently studying game film, or the overnight-sensation pop star who played dive bars for years honing her craft—invisible work is a critical element of their very noticeable success. The Invisibles are windows into a certain mentality. While this book offers a powerful example to learn from this quiet elite among us, ultimately, Invisibles offers an uplifting framework within which to view ourselves regardless of what we do or pursue.
As valuable as all of these takeaways and scholarly insights are, forget about them, if you will, on some level. The brazen lure of Invisibles is their stories. The major profiles that are the engine of this book are of people who are at the most elite levels in their fields. I was given highly unusual, sometimes the first-and-only access to their worlds. Join me as we: go backstage at a Radiohead concert with the band’s legendary guitar tech; slide through highly restrictive security to go on-site with the lead engineer on the tallest skyscraper under construction in China; shadow a virtuoso cinematographer on a major film set; attend a closed meeting of the UN Disarmament Council with one of the world’s top interpreters. Some Invisibles’ worlds aren’t restricted at all, though they are just as fascinating to learn about because we’ve never known of their existence before. Their work shapes our world—what we see, hear, smell, touch, experience—yet to all but the few on the inside, is largely unknown . . . until now. I hope for this book to not only offer inspiration, but to help open your eyes, as it has done for me, to the unseen expertise and passion that buttresses all that we do see.
PERFECTION = INVISIBILITY
The premise of the Invisibles dates back a number of years to my own stint as a magazine fact-checker. I worked meticulously for long hours, under hard deadlines, yet never received notice for my work . . . unless I made an error. (When’s the last time you read a great magazine article and thought, “Man, that must have been fact-checked beautifully!”) For most people, the better they do their job, the more recognition they are likely to receive. Yet my situation was the inverse. By design, the better I did my job, the more I disappeared. Yet despite my anonymity, I found the job immensely satisfying, and I began to wonder, as unique as the experience was, if perhaps there are other professionals who share the attributes and work conditions of a fact-checker.
As I researched an article for The Atlantic that served as a launch point for this book, speaking to many people, characteristics of Invisibles began to crystallize. Fascinatingly, I found they all consistently embody Three Traits:
1) Ambivalence toward recognition
3) Savoring of responsibility
Remarkably, the traits came to light organically as I spoke with prospective Invisibles. To that point, almost every single person I interviewed used that exact word—meticulous—to describe their behavior at work, and sometimes in their personal life as well. After I spoke with my first few subjects, the interviews took on an almost comical “wait for it . . .” quality in my mind, as I knew all Three Traits would at some point come out. Working on the book, vastly expanding the number and variety of Invisibles I spoke with and met, only served to reinforce this magic triumvirate. The more I spent time with them, and witnessed how this silent yet steadfast group thrusts against our prevailing cultural current, the more I came to recognize that there is much we can learn from them, both as individuals and as a society. (The Three Traits will be present and discussed throughout the book, as all Invisibles embody all Three Traits, but like a trio of dancers on a stage, each trait will take a turn in the spotlight as the focus of each of the first three chapters. The remaining chapters illuminate secondary commonalities among Invisibles or offer broader perspectives.)
You may ask, given that the vast majority of us work in obscurity, wouldn’t nearly all of us be considered Invisibles? But Invisibles is not about thankless, mundane jobs. Invisibles, as I define them (really, as they came to be defined through my research), are highly skilled, and people whose roles are critical to whatever enterprise they are a part of. And in contrast to America’s working poor or the laborers of developing-world factory floors toiling in anonymity, Invisibles are often highly successful and recognized by, indeed deeply respected among their co-workers for their expertise and performance. What’s remarkable is that, despite generally having had the means to pursue other careers, Invisibles have chosen, or fallen into and then decided to stay in, careers that accord them no outward recognition from the end user. This is defiantly in opposition to the accolades, or even just pats on the back, most of us so desire. And yet—Invisibles are an exceptionally satisfied lot.
Things seem to be getting louder. Whether it’s an eardrum-punishing soundtrack in a movie theater, the relentless punditocracy shout-fests, or uncouth cell phone yammerers, it’s noisy. (In fact, “there is plenty of evidence that the world, literally, is getting louder,” Jesse Barber, a professor of biological sciences at Boise State University, who examines the effects of noise on the environment, told me as we discussed several recent studies his team conducted.) And yet perhaps the most blaring note in our zeitgeist is one we hardly notice—the amplification of ourselves. We are now a culture that can catalog our every thought and action on Facebook and Twitter. Online comment threads on provocative articles routinely run longer than the articles themselves. We celebrate mobile phone apps like Foursquare that encourage you to show where you are to everyone, all the time. No personal drama or trauma is too embarrassing or mundane to be broadcast on TV. Our ever-more-fragmented news and entertainment fosters an increasingly personalized experience, which research suggests implicitly reinforces a solipsistic attitude. Most of all, as we continue to develop and live through our online versions of ourselves—forever crafting our various social media profiles and avatars—there is the growing notion that we, as individuals, are actually brands to promote. This cacophony of self-importance, of personalized electronic vuvuzelas, has made us like that annoying kid in the front of the class who keeps raising his hand, moaning with distress as he over-tries for the teacher’s attention. And it is tipping us dangerously out of balance.
The United States, as is broadly acknowledged, has always been a nation of strivers and ingenuity. Anyone who’s made the effort to come here is a motivated individual. And for a long time this motivation gene has been in our cultural, perhaps even biological DNA, and still is in many respects. This American characteristic has two components. And just as the oars on both the starboard and port sides of a racing shell must move with equal force to propel the boat directly forward, the equilibrium of these two components has been crucial for the country’s advancement.
Component #1, or let’s call it the Port Side, is the Protestant work ethic of American lore, a nose-to-the-grindstone, silent determination. We saw it with the Puritans, the settlers out west, the stoical drive of our immigrant wave that bloomed in the decades around 1900 (by that time informed by more than Protestant traditions and heritage alone), and in the past century with the “company man” honorably satisfied with his role in the machine and the proverbial gold watch and pension at the end for a job well done. This “quiet dignity of the average American,” as David Foster Wallace once referred to it, is essential not only to our business acumen, but I’d argue also to one’s sense of self. Equally as important, however, is Component #2, the Starboard Side. This is our brashness, our Hollywood Klieg lights that reach to the world, our uniquely American noise. Not just the robber barons’ gilded mansions, but Cornelius Vanderbilt’s awesome sideburns. From Elvis’s swinging hips to hip-hop’s bling.
In the sport of rowing there’s a revered, almost-mythic state when the crew operates as a unified front, the strokes of the oars on both sides matched in force and technique, the rowers in a kind of perfection, where time melts away as the shell glides across the water with majestic speed. Rowers call this state swing. And it’s our American Swing, the equal force, the synchronicity of these two sides that has enabled our prosperity economically, culturally, individually. And yet it seems in recent years the oars on the Starboard Side alone are feverishly outpacing those on the Port Side, steering us perilously off course, risking our personal and collective potential.
We’ve been taught that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, that to not just get ahead, but to matter, to exist even, we must make ourselves seen and heard. But what if this is a vast myth? And, if you pull back even further, what if our very choice of fields to work in is affected by this overall ethos?
Deborah Rivera is the founder of the Succession Group, a New York executive search firm whose clients include some of the largest banks in the world. Her specialty is quantitative and analytical positions for global investment banks. “There aren’t enough Americans who are prepared to compete for Wall Street’s growing quantitative and technology roles that require degrees in math or engineering from top universities,” Rivera told me. “It’s really a cultural issue,” she observed. “In the U.S. people want jobs that get recognition. All of my friends who are successful, hard workers in Wall Street or doctors, attorneys, many of their children are pursuing careers in the arts or entertainment (and thus far aren’t able to support themselves).”
Even among the quantitative analysts, or “quants” as they’re called in the industry, Rivera noted, too many of them were after “the fame, the fortune with the larger project but not the grunt work to get there. I see this in my own firm—people not willing to do the million cold calls, et cetera, to land a deal. They just want the glory when a big hit comes in.”
Behind-the-scenes jobs where the worker gets little outside recognition (though is often highly respected among his peers), that require meticulousness and often have great responsibility—the Three Traits—such as computer coders* and technical analysts are in great demand in an otherwise deflated employment environment. “The world is going digital, and software engineers who can help with that transformation are reaping the benefits. Their pay is great, hiring demand for their skills is through the roof, and working conditions have never been better,” noted a report by Careercast.com on its most recent study. A Wall Street Journal article from late 2011 noted “demand for technical workers such as engineers continues to outpace supply at many companies.”
While a variety of factors are leading to the demand for these types of unseen jobs, it is telling that the need is coinciding with our uptick in personal promotion. Through the Internet and its ancillary mobile apps, now more than ever, people are seeking, and have the means, to draw attention to their every thought and action. We are in the era of “microcelebrity.” As Clive Thompson wrote about the phenomenon in Wired, if you have a blog or are on Facebook or Twitter (which recent studies show is the majority of us today), then “odds are there are complete strangers who know about you—and maybe even talk about you.” Relatedly, the notion of the “branded self” is a growing phenomenon. As Peter Stromberg, professor of anthropology at the University of Tulsa, noted in a Psychology Today piece, branding coaches and business features today teach you to “figure out your strengths and then figure out how to market them, thereby creating a public relations image for yourself.” Stromberg asks, “What is Facebook other than a vast platform for creating brand you? For the same reason that movies get louder and brighter and more violent each decade: there’s a competition going on for people’s attention.”
What if the Invisibles’ approach to work, which runs counter to this ethos of attention-seeking, not only is beneficial, indeed, critical for us on an individual level—both in our personal and business lives—but also economically essential on a societal level? The highly influential economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen famously derided conspicuous consumption (a phrase he coined in his 1899 bookThe Theory of the Leisure Class) and displays of wealth and status; instead, he valorized the class of engineers and craftsmen, people with “artisanal instinct or workmanship, a taste for gratuitous curiosity”—essentially Invisibles—“as motors of economic, social, and scientific progress.” Succinctly, what impacts on our economy and society as a whole could there be if more people embraced the values of Invisibles, rather than focusing on personal status and gaining notoriety, as is the dominant value today?
I reached out to the renowned economist James Galbraith, who, along with being a senior scholar at the Levy Economics Institute at Bard College and the chair of the Board of Economists for Peace and Security, is vice-chairman of the Veblen Institute in Paris. He remarked that “Veblen’s concept of the instinct of workmanship is the right touchstone. We rely on it very heavily—on the simple fact that ordinary working people take pleasure in doing their jobs properly. And giving them the latitude to take that pleasure is a key to economic efficiency.”
It’s reassuring that Veblen also apparently lived by his philosophies. “Archival documents I have found suggest that Veblen always had a tendency to downplay his achievements,” Francesca Viano, an associate at the Harvard Center for History and Economics, who has written extensively on Veblen, told me. “After completing a PhD in philosophy at Yale and when applying to Cornell to get a second PhD, he presented his philosophical studies and an important article on Kant as ‘some work’ in the field. He also wrote in his testament that nobody should ever raise a monument to his memory.” Indeed, Viano noted, “Veblen fits into your definition of ‘Invisible’ as someone who derives ‘satisfaction from the work itself, not recognition’ and so did his ideal engineers and craftsmen.”
In a case of “be careful what you wish for,” it could be argued that a culture of recognition dovetails with a culture of excessive supervision. If the expectation of recognition for nearly everything we do becomes increasingly normalized, what affect does that attitude have on our relationship to privacy, in particular to employers, corporations, and governments overseeing much of what we do? Referencing our newly powerful digital tools, Galbraith said, “Universal monitoring is, it seems to me, corrosive, especially in office settings. One place you see the conflict very clearly is in teaching—the conflict between the autonomy of the teacher and the teach-to-test mentality which has so thoroughly invaded the public schools.”
Our race for more attention has profound consequences, both overt and indirect, societal and personal. There is, however, an antidote to this ever-escalating desire for acknowledgment.
At first glance one wouldn’t connect Andy Johns, a veteran insider of and participant in the most elite and decadent sanctums of rock (he was, after all, holed up with Keith Richards in the south of France for months on end), with Peter Canby, deskbound in a Midtown Manhattan office building, toiling amid high-achieving Ivy Leaguers, protector of facts at a prestigious magazine. But, in crucial ways, they are much the same. In fact, Invisibles are found in all walks of life. What binds them is their approach—deriving satisfaction from the value of their work, not the volume of their praise.
Like many of the most memorable characters in novels and on screen, we relate to Invisibles and at the same time see something in them that’s better than ourselves. Nearly all of us are underappreciated for some aspect of our work (either in the office or at home); it’s the Invisibles’ pure satisfaction from the work itself, their lack of need for recognition, that is a powerfully grounded trait we all can aspire to. The Invisibles are not an exclusive group; they are simply at the far end of a spectrum we all live within. We are all Invisible to varying degrees, in different ways, and in different contexts. The elite professionals I will spotlight in this book, however, show that living at the apex of this continuum, that truly embodying these traits, directly links with success and fulfillment. This book is not a screed against notoriety or making a name for oneself. In fact, most of the Invisibles I’ve interviewed are well recognized within their fields. But, critically, being noticed was never their motivation.
1. AMBIVALENCE TO RECOGNITION
Finding Your Way
I am in a place filled with germs. Where people are often angry, tired, confused, and running late but forced to endure long lines and interminable walks. Where one is made to suffer indignities of invaded personal space and invasive bodily searches. And radiation. And overpriced food. Yes, I am in an airport. Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, the world’s busiest. And I plan to spend the day here. Why would anyone subject themselves to this environment if they’re not going anywhere?
Jim Harding is in his early fifties, married with two daughters. He has thinning hair and a goatee. With an engaging warmth and a Nashville accent, he looks me in the eye and smiles broadly, then says, “No one grows up saying, ‘I want to be in wayfinding!’”
When is the last time you’ve been to an airport, checked in, made your way through security, walked to your gate, used the restroom, bought a sandwich, then boarded your flight without getting confused, disoriented, or lost? For frequent travelers, hopefully this is the norm. Yet we don’t think, “What great signs they have here! I found everything so easily.” If Harding performs his job perfectly you will never think of him or his work. Its very success enables us to have our minds engaged elsewhere. In fact, the only time we tend to be aware of his craft is when it’s done poorly—when we are frustrated because we can’t find what we are looking for. Wayfinding, Harding’s specialty, is the process of designing cues—from signage to lighting and color, even the architecture, anything at all—to help people navigate a built environment. I’m here to see the art and craft behind creating what is right in front of us but which we rarely notice.
We’re riding the “Plane Train,” officially an Automated People Mover (which looks like most airport monorails, though it’s technically not a monorail), which shuttles between the domestic and international terminals, making stops at the various concourses along the way. Harding, a principal at the design firm Gresham, Smith and Partners, leads their environmental graphic design group, whose prime role is creating wayfinding systems for large, complex environments, including the recently completed Maynard H. Jackson Jr. International Terminal here at ATL (as I’ll refer to the airport as a whole). I don’t understand why he wants us to begin our day on the Plane Train rather than in the terminal he worked on. But Harding has a plan.
As we ride the train toward the international terminal we study a map posted on the interior wall of our car. “Why are we on the train instead of in the terminal I worked on? It’s all about the Ripple Effect,” says Harding. Wayfinding in one area of a large structure or environment always affects and is affected by the wayfinding in the rest of the complex. “It’s like a spiderweb,” he says. “You can’t touch one spot without making the whole web move.” For example, though the international terminal was the focus of Harding’s team’s work, every single one of the thousands of old maps of the airport throughout the complex, in the various concourses, the domestic terminal, the Plane Train (like the one we’re looking at), the parking garages, the website, et cetera, all had to be redone to include the newly built concourse and terminal.
When undertaking a major wayfinding project like the one at the Maynard Jackson Terminal, as the ripple effect on the maps shows, everything outside the core area must be tied in to the master plan. On the roads encircling Maynard Jackson the top of every street sign related to the terminal has a slightly curved edge, echoing the gentle undulating aesthetics of the terminal’s roofline. It’s a subtle, likely subconscious wayfinding cue, letting you know you are in the vicinity of the international terminal. Many of the interior signs share this shape as well. This distinguishes the area from the domestic terminal and concourses, where all the signs are a standard rectilinear shape. If you are ever in an airport or campus or hospital or other complex environment and suddenly something feels off, you sense you are going the wrong way, there’s a good chance it’s not just magic or some brilliant internal directional sense, but rather you may be responding to a subconscious cue like the change of shape from one sign system to another. “Signage isn’t only about consistency in terminology and typefaces,” says Harding, but also about placing the overall ecosystem in a particular frame. It establishes a sense of place.
ATL has a layout like a fish skeleton, with the domestic terminal as its head, the new international terminal its tail, and a spine connecting the two, on which the Plane Train operates and seven concourses are laid perpendicular, like ribs. The concourses start with the letter T right at the domestic terminal, then run A through F, the newly built one next to the international terminal. The diagram of the airport we’re looking at inside the train depicts Concourse F superimposed on the international terminal, a rib on top of the tail, as it were. The trouble is the F concourse is actually adjacent to but not inside the terminal, as it’s depicted here. “This is a problem with retrofitting,” Harding says. With limited space for signs inside the train, a decision was made to condense the map, even though it’s not accurate. “The owners don’t always follow our recommendations,” he says. It’s a minor miscue, and though I detect a wince on Harding’s face, he takes it in stride. For all of the analysis, expense, and effort put into creating the ideal wayfinding system, inevitable compromises must be made.
We depart the train and arrive downstairs at the international terminal, as if we are travelers making a connecting flight. In the low-ceilinged claustrophobic space we’re met by a large horizontal sign hanging from the ceiling. On a pewter background is bold white text listing concourses, gates, and other information. It has the same clean look of airport and highway signage everywhere. And that’s not an accident.
As you walk around any large public environment—airports, museums, hospitals, cities—you’ll notice that nearly every sign is written in a sans serif typeface. (Serifs are small lines sticking off the end of letters, like little tails. What you’re reading right now is a serif font because it’s believed that lengthy close text is easier to read with serifs.) But with near-absolute universality public signs are in sans serif. (The ubiquity of one sans serif font in particular, Helvetica, not just in signage but also corporate logos—employed by scores of global brands from BMW to American Apparel to 3M to, yes, airlines, including Lufthansa and the now-retired iconic American Airlines logotype—has been well documented and much discussed.*) Sans serif fonts’ domination today in every environment other than long-form text has to do with a certain global aesthetic toward minimalism, and in the case of Helvetica, its supposed neutral character. But for wayfinding experts sans serif fonts prevail on every sign for one reason: They are easier to read, especially so at a distance. Innumerable studies support this notion. But degrees of legibility go beyond simply choosing sans serif. A lowercase letter “a” in the wrong font may look like an “o” from far away, for example. Within wayfinding, certain sans serif fonts, often specifically designed with distance viewing and legibility as their purpose, rule. Just three fonts, Helvetica, Frutiger, and Clearview, are used in more than three-quarters of airports. (Frutiger, which is the font on the sign in front of us and most of the signs at Maynard Jackson, in fact, was initially designed for Charles de Gaulle Airport in France in 1975.)
Aside from deciding which typeface to use, there’s a seemingly endless list of other concerns regarding the presentation of text. Spacing between the letters, words, and lines on signs is also intensely considered and tested for legibility. A study was even conducted to find the most legible style of arrow to use. Then one must consider the size and placement of the arrows relative to the text . . . Very, very little in the style of an airport sign is arbitrary.
And yet all of this attention to detail is in service of the work essentially passing unnoticed. We of course see Harding’s signs, but they often are most effective when they function as a kind of transient, touching just the most superficial (or perhaps, conversely, subconscious) part of our brains, conveying information without drawing attention to the conveyer. “Ultimately,” Harding says, “if we do our job well, wayfinding enhances the customer experience without them knowing why or how.” For most of us, having our work seen, or gaining recognition or a higher profile, is a key measure of success, yet for Harding invisibility is a mark of honor.
Harding puts the dizzying number of (often unnoticed) details that his team must consider in a broader context by following the Three Cs:
Connectivity—“Wayfinding is like links in a chain,” he says. If someone is walking and they follow a sign and they round a corner, there should be another sign there to tell them what to do. “If you miss a link then the chain is broken.” This is a linear process.
Continuity—This is the spider’s web Harding talked about. Many airports make changes to one part of the web without taking into account how those changes tie in to the rest of the system, resulting in gaps in continuity. Further, on large projects you are confronted with non-linear, non-intuitive circumstances. It’s often not as simple as “go here and turn left. And there is often more than one path to a destination,” he says.
An example of the challenge of nonlinear wayfinding can be found in some work Harding’s team is currently conducting for Philadelphia’s airport, which is composed of terminals A–F. US Airways has flights departing from A, B, C, and F. People assume that if they fly into C they can walk to F for a connecting flight, but right now E and F don’t connect to A, B, and C. You have to walk out and go back through security. US Air offers a shuttle bus so passengers can bypass going outside to connect to a different terminal, but not everyone knows about it. If this sounds like a setup for one of those mind-melt questions on a standardized test, you get a sense of Harding’s challenge. As he says, “It’s very difficult to communicate quickly and clearly to passengers that this shuttle exists, how to find it, and what it’s going to do for them.”
Consistency—“The backbone of airport wayfinding is consistency,” says Harding. The terminology, typography, symbology, formats, and colors must be consistent for a traveler from the moment he enters the parking garage to when he boards the flight.
As one becomes aware of the extraordinary care taken in designing a successful wayfinding system, the miscues are all the more glaring. You may have noticed when I described ATL’s layout the alphabetically dubious inclusion of a T concourse followed by the more logical sequence of A, B, C, D, E, and F. “It’s a legacy thing,” Harding says when I ask about the T, meaning it’s an old, outdated component grandfathered into the new system. This usually happens for economic reasons. Since the costs of changing all the signage and literature can be exorbitant, ill-fitting components like this deviant letter T often are left as is if they’re not deemed too critical. Except that all of the signs were being changed anyway after Harding’s work on the new terminal, so why, when so much expense and effort had gone into getting things right, would this bizarrely out of place T continue? Harding admits that aside from economics the reasons can be political, and gives an apologetic smile that seems to say this was a lost battle he’d rather not relive.*
A slightly incorrect diagram, an inexplicable letter choice—these seem like minor issues, and they are for many travelers. But an aggregate of oddities like this, especially for less sophisticated travelers or, frankly, anyone who has just stepped off a transatlantic flight, groggy and distracted, can add up to a disorienting environment even if you’re not conscious of why you’re feeling anxious. Harding’s goal isn’t so much to keep you from getting lost—that’s a pretty low bar to set—but to get you where you need to go quickly, seamlessly, almost without having to think about it at all. And miscues aside, he’s a master at it.
Why do a few of us like Harding perform our jobs at a masterly level while the rest of us fall short? Intriguingly, perhaps it’s invisibility itself, the lack of promise of ever gaining recognition, that offers at least one answer. There’s a host of research that suggests external factors such as reward systems or the opinion of others—what are known as “extrinsic” motivators—can actually decrease people’s performance in sophisticated work. To pick one oft-cited experiment, the psychologist Sam Glucksberg, now at Princeton, found that when participants were incentivized with a monetary reward to complete a complex task that required creative thinking they actually executed the task slower than participants who were simply asked to complete the task without the cash enticement. It’s theorized that external rewards can narrow people’s focus, shutting down a wider view that’s essential when tasks require creative thinking. Though money was used in the experiment, money and recognition both are considered key extrinsic motivators and one could reasonably be substituted for the other (research has shown that in numerous cultures money and status, along with appearance, tend to hang together as a single cluster as extrinsic motivators). If you want to perform difficult, creative work at a masterly level, one key could be to, at least some extent, disregard external motivators. In this respect perhaps Harding has an advantage because there is no promise of public recognition he needs to avoid thinking about. This isn’t to say that Harding and the other Invisibles you will read about are indifferent to outside rewards, only that with near-unanimity they run second to rewards and motives derived from within.
Wayfinding as a distinct field is relatively new. The term itself was coined in 1960 by Kevin Lynch, a professor at MIT’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning, in his book The Image of the City. “To become completely lost is perhaps a rather rare experience for most people in the modern city,” he wrote. “We are supported by the presence of others and by special way-finding devices: maps, street numbers, route signs, bus placards. But let the mishap of disorientation once occur, and the sense of anxiety and even terror that accompanies it reveals to us how closely it is linked to our sense of balance and well-being.” Lynch understood and promoted the idea of how critical navigation is for people in complex environments like cities. Over time the concept advanced to include large, elaborate interior spaces like airports, hospitals, museums, and outdoor landscapes like corporate and college campuses. Today, a burgeoning subset of wayfinding is in virtual spaces like websites and videogames.
Large wayfinding programs today can have over 10,000 signs and environmental cues. So creating and implementing a highly organized system is critical. To that point Harding was the lead author on Wayfinding and Signage Guidelines for Airport Terminals and Landside, a 255-page guidebook for airports, complete with copious research studies, schematics, and diagrams. One typically thinks of designers as solely being artsy creative types, but to be really successful at this job one must possess a dichotomy of traits. “It’s important for environmental graphic designers [the field under which wayfinding is typically assigned] to work with both sides of their brain,” says Harding. “Many designers have a lot of creative talent,” but because of the organizational complexity of large projects one must also possess “analytical problem-solving skills, the other side of the brain, so to speak.” Not everyone can do both well.
This marriage of creativity and analysis is what’s expected from great wayfinding. On large airport projects the data collected before design even begins is often extensive. Passenger surveys, testing of various pictograms, and studying and modeling the flow of people are just a few of the endless research tasks conducted. To give an idea of the minutiae considered, following are results of a test on understandability of different car rental signs.
Even decisions that seemingly are whimsical are likely analytical at their core. I talked with Herbert Seevinck, a partner with the Dutch firm Mijksenaar, which has done wayfinding projects for numerous airports around the world, as well as long-running work for Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. At Schiphol’s parking lots, Mijksenaar replaced the standard letters and numbers (because who remembers they parked at B23 after a week in Paris?) with graphics of classic Dutch culture—a lighthouse, clogs, windmill, tulips, et cetera. “We studied the users of the car park and found most are Dutch so we used pictures they’d recognize.” Not surprisingly, they found that travelers, especially children, find these far more memorable.
As we look at this same sign here in the subterranean level of the Maynard Jackson Terminal, I notice it reads: “Concourses T, A, B, C, D, E ” on one side and “Gates F1-F14 ” on the other. Though “concourse” and “gate” technically refer to different things, in this instance for clarity and consistency they could have just written “Gates T, A, B, C, D, E” because that is the travelers’ ultimate destination and better recognized term.
One of the basic problems with airport wayfinding is that the terminology is used differently and somewhat interchangeably depending where you are. Technically, the terminal is where you enter, get your boarding pass, check your bags, and go through security. Concourses are the long corridors, like docks, where gates sprout along the exterior like individual moorings. But some airports are small and have just one terminal which incorporates the concourse(s). Others interchange the terms terminal and concourse. And still others—like the sign in front of Harding and me here—essentially interchange gate and concourse. Harding’s guidebook addresses this issue, but wayfinding experts don’t always have the final say.
The platonic ideal of wayfinding, it seems, will likely never be found at a major airport. The costs associated with perfection and the interests of different stakeholders—the airport preferring a legacy term, the architect preferring a certain aesthetic that may not be the best functional choice, et cetera—will always prevent that. In the design phase of the project, representatives from the airlines, along with airport management, operations, security, architects, and wayfinding, all compete yet must work together. Harding’s work, like all the others, inevitably must involve compromise, becoming somewhat invisible, merged with everyone else’s ideas. But unlike the others, even when he does get to implement his plans, Harding’s goal is for his work to disappear. Not to be buried under other stakeholders’ interests or manipulated and lessened, but to be implemented in its most perfect form, its very success rendering it out of mind for the user.
We’ve grown to expect mediocre and even subpar service, products, and experiences in almost every aspect of our lives. And if any of them work out well we notice it—a great waiter receives a better tip, a powerful film gets rave reviews, a flight landing on time is met with relief and sometimes even applause from the passengers. Yet for Harding, flawlessness is expected. The beauty of his work, when done right, is its invisibility. No ones leaves a compliment about the wayfinding in an airport comments box. His work directly affects thousands upon thousands of people every day, yet they never know to appreciate when he’s done an excellent job.
And yet silence as affirmation is essentially the opposite of what most of us are bred to desire and expect. (It starts young. As my two-year-old climbs a set of stairs I find myself absentmindedly saying “good job” with every step.) I ask Harding, when your end user expects perfection yet doesn’t notice when it’s been achieved, where is the reward? “There is a tremendous amount of satisfaction that comes from seeing a finished project, when you see it come to fruition. I still have a hard time explaining to my mom and dad what I do. So if I was in this work for accolades or public attention I would have gotten out a long time ago,” he says. Beyond that, he relishes the “challenge of solving the wayfinding puzzle,” he says. “All of these projects are the same but different. People getting lost is the same problem but the solution is always different. I like plowing new ground. Every project gives me something I’ve never seen before.” Harding considers my question again for a moment. “There was a two-million-square-foot hospital in the Florida panhandle. They had great satisfaction scores on everything except the wayfinding. It was at twenty-six percent. A year after we did a redesign it jumped to eighty-four percent! That was great but getting that kind of feedback is rare.” Considering the specificity of the percentages he’s able to recall, one tends to believe him about the rarity of receiving a post assessment of the work. “What keeps me going is just knowing internally that a job was well done. And enjoying the process of the work itself.”