Wayfinding and Signage: Getting it right

There are a lot of things in life to which we pay scant attention, until they don’t work the way they’re supposed to. Wayfinding is a case in point. When we go to a library, museum, theatre, campus, retail store, or business, the only time we think about wayfinding is when it’s confusing or nonexistent. Like so many things that seem simple but aren’t, wayfinding is an unobtrusive guide. When it works, it’s transparent. When it doesn’t, it’s the center of unwelcome attention.

Wayfinding is more than creating attractive signs. Effective wayfinding is a well-researched, well-engineered plan that anticipates directional needs, guides visitors to key destinations, aligns with your building’s pathways, and strengthens your brand.

Take a walk through your building today — as a first-time visitor — and see what’s working and what’s not in your wayfinding plan. Use the six pointers here to see if your wayfinding and signage is a brand asset — or a detractor.

1. Start way back

Wayfinding must begin its work early, as soon as people approach your property or campus. Your signs should be clear, concise, and easy to read, and there should be a logical flow of information from the entrance to the parking area to the front desk and beyond. Take into account how readable your exterior signs are at night or during bad weather. Remember that signs on the perimeter of your property are the first impression many people will have of your brand. Make it a positive one.

2. Anticipate pathways, decision points, destinations

You spend eight hours a day (or more) at your organization and can probably find your way around blindfolded. Don’t assume everyone can. Anticipate every directional challenge a customer or visitor might encounter. The trick is doing that with the minimum number of signs possible. You don’t want your building to look like an airline terminal. Determine a hierarchy of information based around primary and secondary pathways, destinations, and key decision points. The sequence of signs and organization of information you create should be simple, clear, and intuitive — whether you’re giving directions, orienting your visitors, or identifying destinations.

3. Clarify which signs you’ll need where

An overall wayfinding plan will help you clarify what signs you need:

  • Directional signs point the way.
  • Orientation signs offer navigation help and reassurance for visitors. Examples include You-Are-Here maps, locators, and kiosks.
  • Destination signs mark a defined area, such as “Asian Art” or “Teen Central” or “Minneapolis Riverfront.”
  • Event-related signs guide visitors to special events. In many cases, unfortunately, these signs are hastily and carelessly created. A sticky note with “Board Meeting” and an arrow may be functional, but does nothing to enhance your brand.
  • Regulatory signs maintain desired flow. Examples include “Staff Only” and “Do Not Enter.”

More than likely you’ll need a combination of all of these types of signs.

4. Value aesthetics

Your signs make millions of impressions — every day — and come to mind when people think of your brand. Have you given them the requisite attention? Do they reflect your brand? Do they align with the architecture of your building? Are they noticeable and readable? Is there design consistency between exterior and interior signage? Sign design has come a long way in recent years, and your signage can be both functional and aesthetically pleasing. Design considerations should include materials, colors, hardware, sizes, shapes, typography, layout, and a consistent mounting style for each sign.

5. Take heed of warning signs

You should have your radar up for remarks from visitors like, “Sorry I’m late: I had a hard time finding you,” or “Where did you say the restrooms were?” They may be telling you that your current signage isn’t working. It’s never too late to improve your current wayfinding system, which you should consider if you’ve heard comments like those above or your facility has undergone a renovation or expansion.

6. Plan for tomorrow today

Wayfinding is often left to the last minute. As you address your wayfinding plan, make sure to consider future needs. Are there facility upgrades or an expansion in your five-year plan? Will there be changes in your parking areas or landscaping in the near future? Are there construction plans for any of the access roads or major highways nearby? By anticipating these future challenges today, you can avoid alienating visitors in the future.