“Remember, no matter where you go, there you are.”
Those words, spoken by the eponymous lead of 1984’s “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension,” define that character’s approach to life. Perhaps due to his career as an adventurer, brain surgeon, rock musician, crime fighter, and alien hunter, Buckaroo is able to take a Zen approach to life that most would find difficult if they found themselves where they had not intended to be.
Especially if they were led there by misleading signs.
Unfortunately, this is the result when Wayfinding systems that are intended to be helpful often just wind up being confusing. Creating effective interior wayfinding signage can be difficult for many reasons.
Wayfinding is essentially a system that is intended to help someone get from point A to point B as efficiently as possible. It can also be used to tell people where they should not go. An effective wayfinding system provides answers and enables a steady flow of foot traffic. It should cut down or eliminate the number of times that staff needs to be stopped and asked for directions.
Wayfinding is all about effective communication. This means that a successful wayfinding system has to be about more than just signs. It must take into account the entire geographic area (landmarks, architecture, landscape, etc.) and how that impacts the message trying to be conveyed.
When wayfinding goes wrong, it becomes a source of frustration. There are a number of pitfalls that can lead to poor wayfinding. Examples of both positive and negative wayfinding solutions can be found all around us, every day. Two of the most common locations that display both attributes are healthcare institutions and airports.
Both of these structures typically stretch across several buildings and are frequently expanding. This can lead to a previously straightforward layout becoming a bewildering maze. Often the disparate parts of the campus have been constructed without much thought of how they fit with the whole, or buildings right next to each other appear identical in every way. It is in these instances when efficient wayfinding is essential.
Let’s take a look at some wayfinding problems and their potential solutions.
Problem: Poor Sign Placement
Often, signs are placed in an area that is not conducive to the intended user. This could be for a number of reasons, including lack of wall space to hang a sign.
The result is often signs that are mounted where they are out of sight or past where they would be of use. Obviously, this can lead to signage that is missed altogether or delivers confusing directions.
Solution: Mount Signage at Decisions Points
When someone has walked past an intersection, it does no good to have a sign indicating that they should have turned three feet back. All signage needs to be placed at decision-making points.
This may seem like common sense, but it is often the biggest mistake when hanging signage. Make sure that people have enough time to read the sign, understand it, and then make the correct decision all before they reach the decision point.
Photo Credit: HOTT3D
Problem: No Hierarchy of Information
Signs often have to convey a lot of information. Airports are a good example where you will see signs with information stacked on top of each other (often accompanied with confusing directional arrows) seemingly without much thought given to the order.
Solution: Understand What’s Important for the Users
Sticking with the airport example, if there is a sign indicating the direction of the waiting area, security line, and restrooms, ask yourself what is going to be the most immediate concern for the user. Likely it’s the security line, followed closely by the restrooms, with the waiting area as a low priority (because no one needs to rush to the waiting area).
Once this hierarchy is established, keep it consistent even when new information is added. Maybe another sign needs to point to a restaurant. Decide where that falls in the hierarchy and slot it in (probably below restrooms and above the waiting area).
Problem: Cluttered Signage
Signs that contain a lot of information can be confusing to read. Establishing a hierarchy, which is essential, may not be enough. When information is stacked several lines deep, it can be difficult to read and confusing to quickly understand.
Solution: Consistency and Color
When creating a hierarchy for your information, it is also a good time to come up with a color- coding system to distinguish areas from one another. You also want to make sure that all fonts are consistent in both type and size.
Photo Credit: Dot Dash
Problem: Confusing Iconography
Icons are a perfect way to minimize confusion for people trying to navigate a wayfinding solution, especially in instances where language may be a barrier. However, a problem often arises when designers try to reinvent the wheel and develop new symbols for universally recognized items like restrooms, restaurants, and ADA-compliant areas (ramps, etc.). These newly-developed symbols are often not as clear as they need to be.
Solution: Stick with What Works
The wheel works pretty well as it is, don’t mess with it. There are some symbols that are internationally recognized because they are clear, concise, and easily identifiable. Use them.
Also, make sure the icons you do use are consistent from sign to sign. This is a problem that often occurs when new signs are created months (or years) apart. Always be consistent.
Problem: Using the Wrong Solution
There are many different signage options these days. In addition to traditional hanging signs there are also digital options, projected lettering, backlit displays, and magnetic selections, just to name a few. However, with all of these choices, it can be tempting to try something new without considering whether it is the correct choice for your environment.
Solution: Always Remember the End User
Signs are designed to serve an important purpose. They need to be seen. So, using a cool projected solution in a brightly lit or heavily trafficked area where it will be difficult to see is not an effective use of this format. It’s great having different tools at your disposal, just make sure to make the best use of them.
Photo Credit: Cartlidge Levene
Problem: Poor Maintenance
Everything wears out with age. Even signs that are inside and not exposed to wear and tear or the weather will fade and sustain damage just from everyday use. In addition, other elements can impede the effectiveness of signage, such as new decorations (plants, paintings, etc.) and seating that obscures the signs or makes them blend into the environment.
Solution: Remain Vigilant and Commit to Upkeep
Care and a little attention can help keep your wayfinding system maintained. Signs that are broken or obscured are of little use. Ensure that you have some time and budget set aside to maintaining your wayfinding system and keeping it occasionally updated.
Proper wayfinding can help simplify a complex path or area. Whether it’s signage for a new wing or facility or to be used during a convention or event, give The Trade Group a call at 800-343-2005 for some advice and to investigate your options. We’ll make sure you don’t get lost along the way.
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