Wayfinding is a subject that planners and signage designers love, but nobody else understands. The word isn’t even in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Wayfinding is an umbrella term that includes signage, but also encompasses other visual, auditory, and tactical cues that help people navigate their way around a building or space. Things like color coding by function or floor, arrows on the wall or floor, or a recognizable device like a specific light fixture signaling a place to get help: those are all examples of wayfinding. Not signs exactly, but other signals that help you find your way.
This article on wayfinding offers these characteristics of an effective wayfinding system (note that the site is Dutch):
- Do not make them think.
- Create a comprehensive, clear and consistent visual communication system with concise messaging.
- Show only what is needed.
- Show information relevant to the space, location and/or navigation path.
- Remove excessive information.
- Remove unnecessary elements to create a clear visual environment.
Don’t make them think
A sign should convey its message at a glance. Too much text, or an image that’s hard to understand, makes the sign useless.
Create a comprehensive, clear, and consistent visual communication system with concise messaging
Consistency in colors, fonts and layout helps people subconsciously recognize signs and other cues instantly.
Show only what is needed
Unnecessary words or visual elements are confusing. Design is important, but not at the expense of conveying information.
Show information relevant to the space, location and/or navigation path
For example, a map or directory works so much better if its orientation aligns with its location. Navigation is far more intuitive.
Remove excessive information
Clarity and conciseness are essential.
Remove unnecessary elements to create a clear visual environment
Notice a common theme here? One of the reasons some architects love wayfinding (as opposed to signage) so much is that they don’t like signs cluttering up their beautiful buildings. When well-designed and integrated into the space, wayfinding cues can be effective. Signs with words are also needed, however.
There are a few signs that are required by code, and those must be installed before the building can be occupied. These include exit signs, bathroom signs, elevator signs, and the like. Other than that, don’t overwhelm people with a vast field of competing information.
In some cases, a building is opened with only the code-required signs, and the signage package is developed as the result of people’s use of the space. They used temporary signs, experimenting with wording and placement for a few weeks. Only signs that were really needed were installed; this smaller sign package allowed a better quality of sign to be custom-designed with flexibility for future changes.
One last thought: the signage and wayfinding system is often the last major component of a project to be funded, and many times the money has been redirected to shortfalls in other areas. Don’t skimp – make sure you have the funding to do it right. It will save money (and frustration) in the long run.