Develop a Successful Wayfinding System

April 3, 2006
Wayfinding should be designed to address the appropriate audience

Few things are more frustrating than getting lost, and few things can affect visitors’ feelings about a facility more than the ease with which they can get around. When upgrading the wayfinding in an existing facility or developing a new wayfinding and signage system for a new building, several rules help to ensure a successful wayfinding program:

Wayfinding should be designed to address the appropriate audience. This means designing wayfinding for the first-time visitor, since repeat visitors can rely more on past experiences to navigate a campus or facility. Take into account the average visitor’s state of mind as well: This may range from distracted and road-weary tourists at a resort to nervous and stressed-out patients at a medical facility. The greater the level of distraction or stress, the less able a visitor may be to grasp complex destination terminology or direction-giving.

Control circulation. Controlling how visitors move across a campus or through a building can minimize the confusion brought on by street geometry or corridor configurations and alleviate congestion along more heavily trafficked thoroughfares. Routing traffic, whether vehicular or pedestrian, along selected public pathways can help assure zones of quiet privacy for staff and clients, and enhance security by reducing traffic near sensitive and restricted areas of a facility.

Wayfinding cues should come as much as possible from the environment or the architecture. Where it is possible to take advantage of intuitive design and landmarks in the environment, successful wayfinding to a desired destination can often become self-evident. Along major public pathways, landmarks can help visitors remember where they’ve been and provide a “speakable” reference when giving guidance to visitors. Examples of effective landmarks include sculptures, water elements, and unique works of art.

Information should be organized consistently and structured hierarchically. Upon arriving at a new campus or facility, visitors may not be able to directly access their final destination. This makes it important to provide a point of reference to where they are and where they want to be. It’s also important to present information to the public as they encounter it in the environment. Use the names of buildings, component areas, entrances, and elevators to move people longer distances, and follow with detailed information about the destinations in a given area. This is a more effective way of providing the guidance that people need when they need it, and not overwhelming them with too much information.

Wayfinding elements should be designed to allow for easy updating as information changes over time. This is especially important in facilities where staff and department names change regularly, such as healthcare facilities.

Ensure user participation. It is important that a signage consultant or owner give an organization’s staff and end-users an opportunity to provide detailed input into a wayfinding system. This can be accomplished by establishing a committee with members from throughout the organization, including executives, marketing representatives, and facilities managers.

Mark VanderKlipp is president at Traverse City, MI-based Corbin Design (

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