Beginners Guide: What is Wayfinding Signage?

What is wayfinding signage and why does it matter? Without wayfinder signs, human beings would spend far more time looking for places and things than we need to. Our lives would be more complicated, and we’d find ourselves getting more frustrated.

Take this as an example: you walk into a large hospital building and there are no signs to tell you which wards are on which floors or what department you’re in or even where you need to go to record your arrival. That’s a recipe for confusion, but wayfinder signs can bring sudden clarity to the situation.

Wayfinding signs can point to the reception desk, the lifts and the toilets. They can provide maps of the hospital and list which wards are dedicated to which patients. All of a sudden, entering the hospital is less intimidating, and we can carry on our everyday lives.

Signage and wayfinding materials are so much a part of our lives that we often take them for granted. Yet we always notice when a location’s wayfinding design is poor because it makes finding something far more complicated than it should be.

What are the Different Types of Wayfinding Signs?

There are four major types of wayfinder signs, although there are plenty of subcategories such as park wayfinding signage and interior wayfinding signage. If a person needs to know where to go, there is usually a wayfinding design available.

Ultimately, though, most wayfinder signs fall into the following four groups:

  1. Identification – These types of wayfinder signs let people know they’re in the right place. So, if you go to a park and the wayfinding signage on the path says you’re at a different park than the one you thought you were in, that’s an example of an identifying wayfinding sign. For large corporate locations with plenty of departments, identification signage can be invaluable, saving stress among the workforce.
  2. Directional – Directional wayfinding signage points us in the right direction, acting as a guiding hand to get us where we need to go. If we’re unfamiliar with our surroundings, these wayfinding signs can help us stay on track. In our park example, they could point us towards the children’s play area or the football pitch. In a hospital, they could help us find the A&E department in a busy building.
  3. Informational – Informational wayfinding signs are similar to identification signage, but they give people more broad information about the setting. In our park, it would be the sign explaining the opening times of the children’s play area or providing a map of the whole park. These wayfinding signs are pre-emptive, answering common questions before they’re asked.
  4. Regulatory – This element of wayfinding design sets boundaries and focuses on safety and liability within a location. For example, the no smoking signage we see on railway platforms is a form of regulatory signage – it instantly reminds us of the rules and there is no room for interpretation.

When we’re thinking about what makes a good wayfinding sign, it usually comes down to the location and the requirements the signage is working to fulfil.

For example, directional wayfinder signs are little use if they don’t show the right way to go at a junction and informational signage won’t be useful if it doesn’t answer the questions viewers are likely to ask. It might be quirky to have an informational sign about frogs in your office foyer, but unless you work in frog conservation, it’s unlikely to have much bearing on how people navigate your building.

How is a Wayfinding Sign Created?

If you’re wondering how to design wayfinding signage that works in exactly the way you need it to, start by putting yourself in the shoes of your potential viewer.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do I need this sign to tell me?
  • Does the wayfinder sign need symbols, text or both?
  • Does the signage need to fit a colour scheme to show viewers they’re in the right place?
  • What is the quickest way to impart the information on the sign?

It’s tempting to make wayfinding signage as bold as possible, but the best examples of good wayfinding signs are focused on the needs of the person reading it. What do they need that sign to do and, crucially, is the design achieving that?

How Can You Make Your Wayfinding Sign Stand Out?

Even if we accept that signage and wayfinding designs must be clear and useful, that doesn’t mean they should be boring and easy to miss.

Use brand colours and a type of wayfinding sign appropriate to your location. Use symbols to illustrate common locations at a glance and make sure the font is legible. At all times, ask yourself whether the viewer is getting what they need from the sign.

How Much Should a Wayfinding Sign Cost?

The costs of wayfinding signage are notoriously difficult to calculate without knowing the specifics of a project. This is because wayfinding design varies from project to project, and the scope of the work can only be understood when working closely with a business.

Wayfinder signs from a reputable company should come with a guarantee that they have worked to understand your brand and the requirements of your customers. Paying for excellence in wayfinding design can pay dividends for years to come.