Imagine what an airport would look like if there were no signs to direct people to where they need to go. There’d be chaos as travelers would be forced to explore the airport to find their gates based on landmarks and clues. As Stephen Zacks (2009) said, poor spatial flow combined with inadequate signage adds up to confused people. Fortunately there are signs in airports, as well as colleges, hospitals, and other public areas where crowds shuffle through corridors. However, there’s more to wayfinding signage than simply having signs to direct people. Robin Styles-Lopez (2003) said that “thinking ahead is crucial,” and the planning for wayfinding signage should be included at the start of any architectural project.
This article will address wayfinding signage by answering four questions. First, it will define wayfinding. Then it will cover types of signs and some standards that get used in a wayfinding scheme. Next, it will cover the proper use of wayfinding signage, and finally, this article will cover some ancillary benefits of a strong plan behind a wayfinding scheme.
What is wayfinding signage?
In essence, wayfinding is using signs to point direction. Styles-Lopez, and also Gillian Fuller (2002) said that wayfinding is processing spatial and environmental information to navigate an area. Fuller calls wayfinding “spatial problem solving,” (p. 234), and also said it reassures people in unfamiliar surroundings. She also said that in the case of airports, the sign commands a direction, not a condition of use; i.e., “go this way to Y” instead of “If you follow X path, you will reach Y.” According to Fuller, wayfinding signage collects the individual travelers in the airport and turns them into a crowd. Signs provide crowd control. Wayfinding signage acts as a heart pumping people in transit to their destination through the veins and arteries of public space.
What types of signs are used in wayfinding signage?
Ernest Dwight (2008) said there are four types of signs used in wayfinding signage. The first type is the identification sign; these signs mark an area and provide a name to a location. The next type of sign is the directional sign. Directional signs guide people to a location. Informational signs provide facts about an area or location, such as operating hours, or whether WiFi is available. Lastly, regulatory signs describe what is and isn’t allowed in a particular area. To corroborate Dwight, Fuller cites “the Airport Passenger Terminal” (Hart, 1985) as “professional literature,” and said it lists three types of wayfinding signs, which are directional, identifying and informational.
Four types of signs
Paul Poblocki (2007) said that wayfinding signage further benefits from programmable electronic message boards. These message boards can be used to convey directional messages or informational messages as needed.
A note on ADA compliance
In 2010, new standards from the U.S. Department of Justice related to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) came into effect to standardize wayfinding signage for people with visual impairments. Prior to the 2010 standards, there were mandates for wayfinding signs to include Braille and raised tactile letters, but there was no standard for how they should be designed. Many signs, though compliant, were designed inadequately, and were hard for the visually impaired to read. The 2010 standards spelled out standards for how the Braille and raised tactile letters should appear on all compliant signs. The standards also suggest a minimum contrast of 70 percent regarding letters and their background. In simpler terms, signs should be dark on light or light on dark. Finally, the new ADA standards also prohibit glossy finishes on wayfinding signage.
How should wayfinding signage be used?
As Fuller said, airports rely on signage to direct people. They are to be “obeyed, not believed,” (p. 231). Dwight said that design consistency is important to produce the proper impression of authority in the signs. Poblocki had a few suggestions, including using rounded corners on signs with protruding corners, to keep public safety in mind. He also suggested working with one sign provider, to best obtain design consistency. Both Dwight and Poblocki suggest that too many signs are just as bad as too few, and that a principle of “keep it simple” should be followed. Signs should blend with the surrounding architecture, and to paraphrase Poblocki, wayfinding signage ought to be hidden in plain sight. No one should ever have to look for a sign. As Dwight said, they should always appear right where they’re needed. Furthermore, Zacks recommended “the Wayfinding Handbook” as a great resource for signage principles and design.
What are the benefits of good wayfinding signage?
Aside from preventing mass confusion and chaos, implementing a new system for wayfinding signage is an opportunity to reinforce a brand, Dwight said. Through design consistency, important colors, mascots, emblems, and more can be displayed. Wayfinding signage can provide an areal identity. Moreover, Styles-Lopez said that one way to make a good first impression is to ensure people know their way around the area. If an airport lacked wayfinding signage, it certainly would leave a lasting first impression, but it probably wouldn’t be a good one.
Dwight, E. (2008). Signs of the Times. American School & University, 80(12), 38-40.
Fuller, G. (2002). The Arrow–Directional Semiotics: Wayfinding in Transit. Social Semiotics, 12(3), 231.
Humrickhouse, L. (2012). New ADA Rules Take Effect. American Libraries, 43(5/6), 24-25.
Poblocki, P. (2007). Signage/Wayfinding. American School & University, 80(1), 18.
Styles-Lopez, R. L. (2003). FINDING YOUR WAY. American School & University, 76(3), 304-306.
Zacks, S. (2009). way to go. Print, 63(3), 94.