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Why Signs Are Critical to Wayfinding Systems and Tips for Creating Them

If you've ever seen the Disney movie "Moana," you've heard of wayfinding. In the movie, the term refers to an ancient Polynesian art of ocean navigation using the stars and planets above as well as swells of the ocean itself.

Wayfinding isn't as simple as plotting a route from one place to another. It's the knowledge of the landmarks we use to orient ourselves, the obstacles we encounter along the way, and the signs and symbols that guide us.


How Do Signs and Graphics Help with Wayfinding? 

If only it were as simple as posting around maps with a "you are here" dot! Wayfinding signage design should incorporate principles of human psychology, sociology, and cultural studies. A deep understanding of the people the system will serve is necessary to produce the best results. 

Consider the New York City Transit system. The incredibly complex wayfinding system necessary to guide millions of people DAILY is astounding! Signs are a necessity for guidance to and through each station, along with clear designation for which lines it serves. And how about orienting the people who come to the station? Typically, maps are provided so that people can reference where they are and the immediate surroundings of the station. And on top of all these requirements, people of myriad cultures and languages must be able to navigate easily.

But even a smaller setting needs clear signage and graphics to guide visitors. From signs placed on walls to graphics painted on floors and ceilings, the options abound for guiding people through spaces. For temporary signs like detours for sidewalk closures, standing signs or magnetic signs can even be used. And conferences and other events can take advantage of the temporary yet sturdy nature of floor graphics.

Tips for Designing Wayfinding System Signs

  1. Keep it simple. Wayfinding signage should always be as clear and concise as possible. Only relevant information should be shown, and the amount of content on each sign should be kept to a minimum. It's better to use extra signs than to share too much information on one. Also, maps should always be heads-up in the direction the user is facing so that it's easier to orientate themselves.

  2. Remember the four types of signs. Informational signs help orientate users within the environment, like a "you are here" map. Directional signs guide users to strategic points. Think of a hotel with arrows pointing down each hallway to numbered rooms. Identification signs mark the location of individual places on a large scale (like a building) or on a small scale (like a bathroom). Warning signs indicate safety measures like fire routes or regulations like nonsmoking areas.

  3. Keep it consistent. All signs in a wayfinding system should have a standard look. From fonts (sans serif are best) to color palette to iconography, each sign should look as though it belongs in the set. The consistency will help users navigate since they will know what to expect and look for as they move throughout the space. Information should also be presented in a consistent manner. Using the hotel example above, each floor sign should have the floor number, room numbers, and arrows in a consistent spot on all signs.

  4. Always test your system. Whenever possible, you should test your wayfinding system with a population like those who will be using it. Mockup signs and post them in their proposed locations, then have your testers walk through the space. If this isn't possible, make a floorplan of your space and have testers check your sign placement for flaws. By gaining the insight of your target audience, you'll be confident in your final product.


Unfortunately, modern cities and building floorplans don't allow us to use the stars to guide ourselves. But with the right wayfinding system design and supporting signage and graphics, there's just no telling how far you'll go.

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