Jane Doggett, wayfinding pioneer, designed Tampa International Airport's system still used today

Jane Davis Doggett, 86, pictured in her Jupiter Island home, split her master of fine arts at Yale University between architecture and design. That strategy served her well.
Jane Davis Doggett, 86, pictured in her Jupiter Island home, split her master of fine arts at Yale University between architecture and design. That strategy served her well.
Published April 21, 2016

Tampa International Airport is a place of wayfarers. By the millions each year, they pass through this way station. Probably more than anyone else, one woman has made it easy for all of them to find their path since the airport opened in 1971.

Jane Davis Doggett is a wayfinder.

Doggett, 86, is the legend you have never heard of. She has designed more than 40 "wayfinding" systems in major airports in the United States and dozens more in other large public venues such as Madison Square Garden.

Her scheme for the Tampa airport is one of her favorites, and still in place even as the airport undergoes a renovation costing almost $1 billion. Thank Doggett for the use of colors for the airport's directionals. For creating a new typeface and its accessible signage. For its elegance.

"It was a pioneering design," said Chris Minner, the airport's vice president of marketing, "incredibly brilliant."

Wayfinding is an old term associated with techniques people used to find obscure places such as remote islands. In recent times, it has come to reference the ways people navigate urban environments. Wayfinding became especially important for airports beginning in the early 1960s with the popularity of new commercial jetliners.

"I was in the right place at the right time," Doggett said. "The airports were dinky back then. As the prop plane turned into a jet, the airports had to become bigger to handle them and more people."

Doggett already had a track record of successful designs beginning with her first job in 1959 for the Memphis airport. She had gone to high school, then Yale University, with the airport's architect.

"We innovated a lot," she said. "We got the airlines to agree to one typeface (instead of using their logos on signage). One of them said, 'That's socialism.' It was consolidation."

The project won a prestigious award from the Institute of American Architects and began her long and storied career.

• • •

Doggett was born in 1929 in Nashville.

"My mother was a fantastic piano player, a natural. My father was good at making money. He was a contractor. He had a sense of land and space and liked quality."

She said she and her older sister, who still lives in Nashville with her husband, were always visual.

"All I wanted to do was ride my horse and draw," she said. She would illustrate the end papers of her mother's books, which was fine. Bored in church, she would draw in the hymnals, which was not.

"Mother would have to buy the books."

She received a bachelor of fine arts degree from Sophie Newcomb College in New Orleans and traveled, mostly through Europe, for about a year.

"It was the best thing I ever did," she said. "It made me ready to appreciate art. But studying in Florence, we would freeze. I went to Yale and they had all this equipment you wouldn't believe ... and heating."

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At Yale she split her MFA between architecture and design, studying with two influential professors, one in each field: Louis Kahn and Josef Albers. Both, in their general beliefs, espoused the idea that architecture and design could effect positive change in people's lives.

Her main interest was graphic design, and she used her architectural training to broaden her reach into a new discipline that has come to be known as environmental graphics, in which design elements become an integral part of buildings and their surroundings. Albers, especially, had a profound effect on Doggett and her use of color. He had become famous for his color theory, manifested most famously in his Homage to the Square, hundreds of paintings and prints which explore relationships of colors in nested squares.

Typography, too, fascinated her.

"In graphics, typography is the key," she said, "along with the interaction of color. It grew into signage systems for getting you around the architecture and the space around it."

• • •

Doggett's approach to the Tampa airport, as with all projects, was rigorously intellectual and analytical, cloaked in an aesthetic that was visually pleasing and elegant in its directness. As she said of wayfinding, "You have to think simply. You can't hang a Persian carpet."

The beauty for her of the Tampa airport was that, unlike most others she worked on, it was new.

She credits its leaders with its success and giving her "the freedom to spread my wings." They conceived of an innovative "Landside/Airside" concept: a central terminal hub with spokes radiating from it for plane gates. Trams, never used before in an airport, would take travelers back and forth to minimize walking and save time. Everything would be divided into two zones based on its north-south orientation.

"The engineers wanted the directionals to be called north and south," Doggett said. "But I said that at night, who knows what's north and south? And even in the daytime, after driving around all those curves (from the highway to the entrance), who knows?"

She proposed a color-centric directional design using red and blue.

"There was the color-blind argument," she said. "Through my Albers background, I added green to the blue and orange to the red. We pushed it as far as we could to separate the two colors. By regulating the color, we overcame the color-blind factor."

Doggett also created and trademarked a new typeface, which she named Alphabet A. It's based on Helvetica, a widely used sans-serif font. Sans-serif letters don't have little lines at their end points as serif typefaces do. Serif typefaces are preferred for print (and you're reading a serif typeface right now), but sans-serif is much easier to read quickly, so it's better for signage or other quick-glance messages such as headlines. Most headlines in the Times are printed in sans-serif type.

The airport's signage was so accessible and straightforward that two-thirds of the signs originally planned for wayfinding weren't needed.

The overall concept divided the airlines into two groups associated with red or blue. From the first sign on the road leading to the terminal, continuing to parking, check-in, elevators, shuttle stations and baggage collection, airport users need only remember their color. Even the airport's logo, a stylized image resembling a bird or plane dividing water and sky and titled the Spirit of Flight, is worked in red and blue.

No detail was too obscure.

"We were all involved in everything," she said. "We knew the landscape people, for example. Engineers never thought of trees, the aesthetics of them. They were something in the way so you took it down. The airport has beautiful Florida landscaping.

"We had long discussions about signs reading 'arrival' versus 'arriving flights.' "

"If you're doing wayfinding right," said Minner, "it's not something you (the airport guest) have to think about."

Minner said he recently unearthed a box full of old ashtrays in a meeting room.

"I can imagine her," he said, "in a smoke-filled room of men."

That Doggett accomplished so much as a woman — in the early days the only woman — says much about her talent and her resolve.

"I had a lot of guts," she said. "As long as I could prove it, I could persuade them. It was not easy being let in. It was my going to Yale probably. But I was let in. And I realized we were doing something important. "

One life-changing example is the signage system she designed for the Newark airport, whose designers and engineers were reluctant to adopt her proposal.

"We tested it endlessly," she said. "The Wharton School did traffic tests after it was installed and they found there were 80 percent to 90 percent fewer traffic accidents (on the roads in and out of the airport). It was exciting to have that proven."

• • •

Doggett has been retired for years and lives in the Jupiter Beach area on the east coast of Florida. She has returned to her first love, drawing, and has a studio from which she works. She inputs the drawings into a computer so they can be layered with other images and enlarged. Her work has been exhibited in museums, including that of her alma mater, the Yale Art Gallery. In February she was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame. Recently, she has concentrated on a series in which colorful geometric designs represent sayings from sources such as the Bible. She also creates stylized landscapes; she recently completed one titled Matchpoint at Wimbledon.

"It's wayfinding for myself," she said. "I like the freedom to do my own art."

Though Doggett has retired, she is often called in for consultations by specific airports or for broader, conceptual brainstorming.

"I've done think-tank things," she said. "One was secret, on airport security. We suggested doing it like the checkout of a store in reverse. ... Another was for the airport in Denver, which was a mess. Bags were being ripped open by conveyor belts. You'd have to standardize luggage, re-engineer the whole thing. It's dreamworld stuff."

Minner said the Tampa airport's head designer recently called Doggett to pick her brain. "It was like a Back to the Future conversation," he said.

Back then, he added, "Everything was so well thought out. (The Tampa airport) is still ranked at the top for customer satisfaction in the U.S. You look at other airports ranked with us, and they're mostly newer. Her graphic design is timeless. As we continue to evolve and grow, all the principles Jane put into place we'll adhere to because they're the best in the world."

Contact Lennie Bennett at