What Is Wayfinding Signage?

27th August 2019

What is wayfinding signage?

In today’s world, many of us have become accustomed to using technological aids to help us navigate. From satnav in our cars to Google Maps on our phones, we often rely on devices to show us how to get from one exterior location to another - but deep in the heart of an airport or a large hospital, we’re on our own.

A wayfinding sign is any sign designed to help a visitor find their way around. This might be a simple directional arrow pointing down a corridor, or something more elaborate and informational such as a map or diagram.

In this post, we’ll look at some types of wayfinding signs, why we need them - and some tips for designing good ones.

Why do we need wayfinding signage?

Without wayfinding signage, large and complex environments become confusing to navigate - a fact that will resonate with anybody who’s ever gotten lost in Ikea.

In some circumstances, wayfinding signage can be crucially important. For example, in airports, train stations and other transport hubs, a lack of navigational aids would likely cause major disruption as many passengers would struggle to find the correct platforms or gates in time to make their connections - and can you imagine the chaos that would occur if all the wayfinding signage were removed from the London Underground?

Wayfinding signage in hospitals and surgeries is also vitally important, as patients trying to attend an important appointment or receive urgent medical care shouldn’t have to wander around lost in a maze of corridors. At best, this can cause unnecessary pressure on the reception areas as visitors queue up to ask where they can find the radiology department; at worst, it creates unnecessary stress for patients who may already be facing major health challenges.

There are many situations in which wayfinding signage can help with efficiency. Large retail businesses can use signs to help customers find the products they want without assistance - for example, a supermarket that doesn’t label any of its aisles would be a nightmare to navigate, forcing each customer to continually ask staff members where they can find pasta or toothpaste or any one of a hundred items that might be anywhere.

Libraries, too, would be almost impossible to use without wayfinding signage - in fact, a fair amount of academic research has been conducted into the best ways of helping visitors to find a single book in a large building.

Almost every type of public building or site can make use of wayfinding signage, helping customers to find the reception desk, the payment till, the toilets or anything else they might require.

Types of wayfinding signage

Wayfinding signs can come in all shapes and sizes, but functionally we might divide them up into four major groups:

  • Directional: These simple signs generally have arrows directing visitors to their destination. Multiple directional signs can be combined into one to help people find many different locations.

  • Informational: In some circumstances, it might be hard to anticipate which of a large number of destinations a visitor might be seeking. In this case, it may be helpful to present an overall map or a schematic diagram of the layout (such as the London Underground map) so that each person can work out their own route. One benefit of this type of signage is that it can be reused in multiple locations to help a visitor get from any point to any other, but the trade-off is that it is often less intuitive to understand than a simple directional sign that says ‘this way →’.

  • Identification: Successful navigation is not only about finding the correct path but also knowing when you’ve arrived, particularly if you’ve never visited the location before. Therefore, signage that identifies the current area, or the contents of the room behind a door, can help visitors to tell if they’re in the right place.

  • Safety: Often a legal requirement, some signage is frequently required to help the visitor find things not commonly sought in the course of a normal visit, such as fire extinguishers, alarm controls or fire escape routes.


What makes a good wayfinding sign?

When designing a wayfinding sign, there are some unique considerations to bear in mind.

For these types of signs, context is everything - careful planning and coordination will be needed to work out which signs are needed where, and it is vitally important that the designer ensures consistency and continuity throughout all of the signage a visitor will encounter.

For example, simple wording changes between signs could be confusing - if somebody who has been following signs leading them to ‘Reception’ eventually finds a sign that directs them to the ‘Foyer’ instead, they might suddenly wonder if that’s a different area entirely or if they took a wrong turn somewhere.

For some locations and uses, there may be linguistic considerations as well. For airport signage, should everything be presented solely in English, or in some other languages as well? For this reason, many airports and transport locations make good use of familiar pictograms (such as an icon of a plane angling up and away from the ground to signify Departures, or a suitcase on a track for Baggage Claim) to ensure meaning can be communicated to non-English speakers.

In addition, wayfinding signage mustn’t be overcomplicated. The whole point of wayfinding is to provide clarity for people who would otherwise be confused - over-cluttering with information (or even providing contradictory instructions) does more harm than good. If a simple ‘this way →’ sign will do the job, there’s no reason to add anything else.

As with all types of signage, visual clarity is also a key consideration. Ideally, a wayfinding sign should be clearly visible from a distance - if a visitor has to walk over to the sign to read it, only to discover they needed to go in the opposite direction or that they’re in entirely the wrong area of the building, they’re likely to feel frustrated. However, being able to quickly read distant signage can enable the visitor to correctly plan their journey with maximum efficiency.

For maximum readability, keeping the sign visually simple and uncluttered (along with using clear, high contrast typography) helps viewers to understand the design from a distance.

In conclusion, wayfinding signage is a must-have for many businesses and organisations. It can drastically improve the quality of visitor experiences, and increase efficiencies in a variety of situations.

By installing directional, informational and identification signs in key places and designing them for maximum readability and clarity, any location can be made more user-friendly and welcoming to the general population.

Please contact us today to find out how we can help with your wayfinding signage project.