Creating an effective wayfinding system

Wayfinding in public places can be a challenge. Poorly designed wayfinding can lead to confusion, and even a loss of visitors/use of the space. People often think and act differently to each other so how is it possible to create a system that meets the needs of everyone?

There are some common themes in wayfinding that can create a strong, easy to use system alongside methods that make it easy to understand the directions given.

The Psychology of wayfinding

Wayfinding is about more than just providing some clear signage. There is a human psychological aspect behind wayfinding which is important to take into account.

Each person navigates a building based on their senses, the information given, their perception and past experience and norms. For example, cafes are often on the bottom floor of buildings. There are practical business reasons for this, but a person navigating a building will know this is usually the case. This is a norm.

In a complex building or campus type environment, our expectation is there will be a map located near the entrance or to where the space is entered, and the brain will be sensing this from past experiences, and looking for a map or diagram.

In a hospital setting, signage is usually consistent – a board detailing wards or areas with directional arrows clearly visible multiple times across corridors. The brain is used to this model and would find a different model challenging as it remembers it is in a hospital and links it to this type of wayfinding.

As people are all different it’s important to remember everyone will approach wayfinding differently. Some people will pre-plan, perhaps downloading a map of the building or area in advance. Others will arrive and go straight to a person to ask for directions. Others will spend time orientating themselves first before navigating to the required location.

When designing a wayfinding model, it is important to consider all of these factors to ensure the system is fit for purpose, for the range of different responses that might be encountered.

Identify who wayfinding is for

It’s important that the wayfinding system is developed for the people who will use it. Will this be first-time visitors or repeat occasional visits who will always need to wayfind due to the complexity of the building? Will there be many visits? For example in a hospital or an airport, or occasional visitors? Will people be expected to self-navigate or will they always be escorted by someone, such as in an office block?

Having clarity on the target audience for wayfinding will ensure the right approach is used.

Create a clear design approach

There are very basic design principles that should be used when wayfinding. A sans-serif font in a regular or medium weight should be used to make words clear and highlight the text without crowding the sign itself.

Using colours the brain knows to be related to a specific sign is also useful. For example, using green for exit signs.

There are some text and background colours that work well together. Black text on a yellow background is ideal for people with a visual impairment or for easy to find signs in a busy environment (airports often us this colour signage). This combination is often used in wayfinding.

Red also stands out well in a crowded environment, but would usually be used for a warning sign e.g. a no entry sign.

When using pictograms, use standard concepts e.g. the male and female or unisex toilet symbols or WC rather than trying to create a design-led innovative approach that may confuse visitors.

Consider wayfinding in the building design

Where possible, it’s important to consider wayfinding in the original design of the building. Clearly laid out buildings with a circular flow, clear sight lines and well-located destination points will drastically improve wayfinding before signage even needs to be considered.

At this point, if you can create landmarks this will also help increase the ease of navigation.

User led design

Where there are a known cohort of visitors who will use a building, ensuring they are part of the wayfinding design mean it will be fit for purpose.

Consultation with visitors about key needs, accessibility, and how your particular audiences will need to wayfind within the building will help design the system you implement; and reduce the need for expensive redesigns, extra signage, or use of staff to reduce confusion going forward.

Regulate flow

The flow of people is an important consideration in wayfinding. There are a number of ways this can be controlled.

Create clearly defined paths

If you have a number of routes in your building, create a clear direction for the way people should go. Consider creating paths to go past key areas such as cafes and shops for impulse purchases. In busy environments it’s crucial there is not a build-up of people in one area so that people are moving consistently.

One way to do this is to use the floor to direct flow. Using an arrow system that directs along the pathway, or providing regular signs on walls that direct people in specific routes will help ensure the flow.

Don’t give lots of choices

If possible, don’t give a variety of choices, as this will cause confusion. This is particularly important in exhibitions, or where the visitor should see everything on the route.

If you do provide a choice, for example, to improve the flow, make sure it’s clear where the visitor should go as a result of this choice, and if the visitor should return to the same exit point, the route will need to loop back into this.

It’s important to communicate this to the visitor too, so that if they are trying to find a route back to the exit, a toilet or cafe, it is clear that they can choose another route. The easiest way to do this is through wall or ceiling signage, a map, or through an arrow system on the floor.

Give a map

Many visitors prefer a map to wayfind through a building, whether it be printed copy, available via an app or download on a phone, or a large wall-mounted map. Providing a map will help visitors orientate themselves to where they are now (so if it’s not clear it will be important to add a ‘You are here’ marker).

Create reference points

Creating reference points, particularly in complex buildings, or large sites is important. There are a number of ways you can do this to help orientate the visitors.

Provide signs at decision points

If there are two corridors left and right that someone can take, or there is a crossroads or junction of pathways that means the visitor has a choice, reinforce the wayfinding with signage.

Wherever there is a decision point for navigation, there should always be signage. This is particularly important in entrances/foyers/reception areas.

Create an identity at each location, different to all others

One way large sites and complex buildings make it easier to wayfind is by either colour coding or naming different areas. Hospitals often have different coloured ‘zones’ to make it easier to find the area you need.

Naming areas is an easier way of wayfinding than providing room numbers. Some older buildings have room numbers, ror example buildings like the British Museum. However, if the numbers are not in a logical order this causes further confusion as a person usually expects a logical sequence. The areas of the British Museum are then further broken up into historical periods, which someone using a map or signage should then be able to locate more easily.

Use landmarks to provide orientation and memorable locations

Another way of clear orientation and wayfinding is to provide landmarks that people can find or remember. This can be something like a sculpture or a statue. It can also be a brightly coloured area or a group of buildings.

This is an important factor to consider in the planning and design stage of a building so that landmarks are spread throughout the site or building.

Ensure wayfinding is accessible

Following on from signage, it’s important to ensure that wayfinding is accessible in a number of ways. First of all, that signage is clear and simple and easy to understand. In airports where there are users who with multiple languages, some signage may be written in a number of languages or a globally recognised picture used.

When creating pathways through a building also consider physical accessibility. Ensuring that people who mobilise using a wheelchair can both see any signs on ceilings, walls and floors and can also use the path you’ve designated, so ensure the route has no steps, or where there are steps there’s also a lift.

Walk the routes

To ensure signage is clear, routes are well defined, there are landmarks to orientate to, and that maps do indeed make sense, it’s important to walk the route before asking visitors to. This will pinpoint any areas of confusion, highlight additional signage needs and ensure clarity of any maps or digital wayfinding systems.

We hope you find this article useful. If you’re looking to enhance your environment and deliver a better user experience, check out the wide range of custom-made signs from Landmark.