Eat at America's table, that is,
if you can find it.

2020 Summer Internship with the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History

Who Knew Finding the Cafeteria Would Be So Hard?

During a summer internship with the Smithsonian's, National Museum of American History, I was able to further explore environmental graphic design in regards to museum work. 

The previously renovated museum contains four different floors that house a large variety of exhibitions, making it easy to get lost exploring each exciting floor's content. However, one floor in the museum, the Lower Level Corridor (LL Corridor), is a space that is less fun to get lost in. The floor contains only two major features for visitors, a ride simulator room and the cafeteria. Most visitors visit this space only to eat at the cafeteria, yet its existing architectural layout  and indistinguishable wayfinding system create an incredibly confusing experience. 

Surveying the Space

In order to fully understand the major issues with the space, I surveyed the space multiple times throughout the course of a week, and observed visitors. I stationed myself at two major entrances, the East Elevators, and the Escalator, and listened to visitor comments regarding their understanding of the space around them. I studied the walking path of visitors, noticing if they looked confused and paid attention to repeated paths I saw multiple visitors make, in an attempt to locate the cafeteria. Lastly, I watched how visitors interacted with the directional signage currently in the space. 

My findings during the survey allowed for me to define a problem statement, and assist me in creating a new system for the space. 

Problem Statement

What's NOT Working

    • Current architectural wayfinding signage is not easily seen, due to size/placement/low lighting 
    • Museum visitors are often confused and feel uninvited  when entering the LL corridor 
    • No clear identity of simulator space, and cafeteria Identity is tucked away

Overall, the LL corridor is dark, confusing, and feels disconnected from the rest of the museum.  The lack of clear identity and a recognizable wayfinding system creates a space that visitors find challenging to navigate. Visitors often come to this floor to eat at the cafeteria. Visitors enter the area from either the escalator or east elevators, into an unfamiliar space, and have a hard time locating the current wayfinding system. Visitors have been noted to enter the simulation room by mistake, making comments like, “Wait- what’s even on this floor?” as they enter the space. 

To help visitors better navigate the space, and continue to feel a part of the overall museum experience, I proposed that the museum create clear identification spaces for the cafeteria, simulator, and LL corridor level overall. Along with this, using suspended directional wayfinding signage that distinguishes itself from the area will help visitors locate the cafeteria, and have a better sense of place. 


The LL Corridor required a newly designed wayfinding system that offers visitors clear navigation throughout the museum. There were two major problems that got in the way of this: 

1.) Architectural Layout of Space: The LL Corridor is different from the rest of the museum, and the space is exceptionally uninviting. Visitors don't feel like they are on the right floor, and once they enter the level from both the escalator and east elevators, they are met with dead ends, causing them confusion. Additionally, the VR simulator room is often confused with the cafeteria, due to the open architectural entrance being located right next to the east elevators. 

2.) Existing Wayfinding: The awkward layout of the LL Corridor is pretty bad, and the current wayfinding system used in the space does not do it any favors. The signage in the space is small and hard to see in the low lit area, many visitors walk around aimlessly not noticing any of the signage. 

Architectural layout issues, above is an image of what visitors see when they first enter the floor from the escalators. It's extremely uninviting, and many visitors feel they are on the wrong floor. 

Existing Wayfinding, signage in the spaces goes unnoticed in the low lit space. 


After surveying the space, and understanding the problems, I began thinking of a variety of solutions that might allow an easier time for visitors in the space. 

After refining, I concluded two different solutions that would be beneficial for the space:

1) Create an Identity/Placemaking System

2) A New Wayfinding System

Creating an Identity/Placemaking System

Expanding the already existing placemaker/identity system of the cafeteria, 
and creating a clear identity system for the VR Simulator room. 

Expanding America's Table

The entrance of the cafeteria has a unique and memorable placemaker and identity system that uses the newly implemented brand identity of the museum, to help indicate the cafeteria. 

This system works well in the space, but it's secluded to one corner of the LL Corridor, and is only visible to visitors once they are close to the entrance. 

During my process, I thought that the expansion of this graphic identity would offer visitors a more welcoming experience in the space, and help to further insinuate the identity of the cafeteria further, assisting visitors when they are trying to locate it. 

Current identity, image shows that space only covers one corner, and is hidden away

Proposal, by simply expanding the already designed space, it's easier for visitors to recognize the space from a distance. 

Giving VR a Real Identity

Unlike the Cafeteria, the VR Simulator room did not have a clear identity assigned to it. Other than some temporary signage offered by the VR company, at both entrances, there was nothing that made it clear this space was being used for the simulators. With one of the entrances being just to the West of the East Elevators, many visitors would walk into the VR space, after they noticed a large doorway entrance, only to find this was not the cafeteria. 

Thinking about the cafeteria entrance and it's distinguishable identity, I created an identity system for the VR room, that would feel entirely different from the cafeteria and general museum brand identity, helping visitors understand that this space was not the cafeteria. 

Original Identity, no clear identity was assigned to this space, other than a removable sign, causing visitors to walk into the open entrance once they got off the elevators, thinking it was a cafeteria.

Proposal, by using the identity system of the VR company, and additional lighting at the entrance, this room can be clearly identified. This would help visitors better know what room they are about to enter. 

Proposal, VR simulator identity would not follow the museum's brand identity in anyway, further separating it from the cafeteria identity.

New Wayfinding System

Working through current signage issues, to create a new wayfinding system that's much more clear.

Make Way for New Wayfinding

Though the LL Corridor does have signage, it often goes unnoticed and does little in helping assist lost visitors. The signage in the space is small, placed in hard to see/read areas, and is not well lit in the space. I proposed that the museum update it's current signage to a newer system that would consist of, 

  • Suspended wayfinding signs that incorporate the museum brand identity, and are much more visible to visitors
  • Introduce newly designed free-standing wayfinding signage, that incorporates the museum brand identity, and is used as orientational signage, showing the entire floor plan of the museum, so that visitors better understand where they are
  • Expanding a floor/section identity signage system that is seen on the first three floors of the museum, and gives visitors an insight into what is in the space they are entering. 

Elevation showing three types of signage that would be introduced into the LL Corridor, suspended signage, floor/level identification signage, and standing signage that shows the entire floor plan of the museum. This signage would follow the museum's brand identity, allowing for a cohesive system that is easily recognizable to the museum's visitors. 

 Floor Identification System

The museum set in place a system of signs throughout different floor and section entrances that identify specific floors and help visitors better understand what spaces and floors they are about to enter (current signage seen on left). This system is used on the first three floors, but is no where to be found on the LL Corridor. 

This signage system is great, as it offers simple and clear communication about a visitors location and the surrounding areas, and uses the museums newly introduced brand identity, offering better recognition for the museum. 

By simple continuing this system at the entrances of  the LL Corridor, it will reduce visitor's initial confusion about whether or not they are on the right floor for the cafeteria. 

Sketch proposal for Floor Identification system to be added to LL Corridor, helping visitors know what is in the space they are about to enter.

Sketch of Signage system at escalator entrance.

Signage above escalator entering the LL Corridor would help visitors to know that the cafeteria is in fact, on this floor. 

Suspended Signage

Current signage in the LL Corridor (shown on left) does not work well in the space. Due to placement, lighting, and size, the signs in this space often go unnoticed. They don't feel as though they fit in with the museum and/or it's identity. 

New suspended signage that was larger, better fit with the museum identity, and placed in locations that were more visible would offer visitors direction in the space. 

The signage system I proposed was simple, yet noticeable.  It incorporated an element of the museums brand identity (typeface, linear line graphics,) allowing for better recognition, and offered icons/symbols that would help the hundreds of visitors that are from non-english speaking countries better read the signs. 

Sketch proposal for new suspended directional signage.

Sketch showing a view at the signage system as visitors enter the space from the east elevators. 

Noticeable suspended signage, and a sign identifying the level would have a similar branded system.  Visitors would have an easier time recognizing them as signage, and following their directions.

Standing Signage 

The museum's current standing signage is rather bulky and often hard to distinguish (shown on left). It contains advertisements for other things going on inside the museum, and many visitors don't realize that it includes a map of the entire museum, to assist them in understanding their exact location. 

This signage is not included anywhere in the LL Corridor, so visitors have no understanding of their current location in regards to the rest of the museum. 

With a newly designed standing sign that would appear on each level of the museum, have a more sleek and sharp design, and fit in with the other wayfinding sigange, visitors would better utilize this signage. 

Sketches showing plans for a newly designed standing sign, that would be placed between the entrance/exit of the cafeteria and simulator room.

Standing signage elevation, seen with Suspended signage, and the continuation of the Cafeteria Identity. By including standing signage by the exit/entrance of the cafeteria, visitors can see where there are in regards to the rest of the museum, and find out where they would like to visit next. 

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