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Wayfinding: sign of the times

by Jason Lewis on Jan 4, 2017

Jason Lewis
Jason Lewis

Building inclusive, healthy, secure, functional and profitable public spaces is perhaps the greatest challenge facing developers and architects today, and there are no easy solutions. Often overlooked in this puzzle and challenge is the role that effective Wayfinding and Signage can play. The two terms are used interchangeably but are often misunderstood.

Keeping it simple to compare terms, Wayfinding is the early research, strategic thinking and conceptual design that goes into the planning of the built environment to aid users in navigating and understanding complex spaces. The result can be architectural features, landmarks, public artworks, defined paths, terminology, digital applications, visual clues, zoning, naming and numbering systems. One of the most important results of Wayfinding is effective signage. Clear, consistent signage aids in the overall Wayfinding experience. Signage in itself is not Wayfinding, but rather one of the results of it.

Traditionally this role in design has been filled by graphic designers and more closely related to branding. However, in recent years the discipline is being developed to combine design, engineering, science and psychology to shape user behaviour. When projects are approached from this wider perspective, the goal then moves beyond signage design, and becomes a goal improve the sites’ efficiency, create a welcoming environment and even increase revenues for clients. Here are three ways you can use Wayfinding to make a positive impact on your projects.


The relationship between security and Wayfinding is not something that is often considered. However, when we think of the goal for security in any public space we see that effective Wayfinding could provide for and enhanced security. How so? Let’s looks firstly at signage. If the signage has been properly designed, placed and contains clear concise information which aids users on their journey, they are less likely to be lost or confused. As the security role among other things is to monitor sites and users’ behaviours, those persons who loiter or walk without clear purpose often appear to be suspicious and require further investigation through questioning or through video monitoring.

Conversely though, users who have a clear sense of where to go and where they are in the public space are unlikely to exhibit such behaviours, thereby making it easier for security to single out suspicious behaviour. Furthermore, how often when we are lost do we approach a security guard and ask for directions? It’s very common but is an indicator of lack of an effective Wayfinding system being in place. We rather want security guards to focus on their tasks without distractions from lost users.

User experience

A lost guest is an unhappy guest. Quite simply, we all know we choose our destinations, whether it be a mall, a hospital visit or to an area of a city, based on our past experience. Was it easy for us to park, did we get lost, was I able to find my car while leaving, are all questions we internalise when making these decisions for destinations. The average user may not understand or realise that their negative experience may boil down to ineffective or a simple lack of Wayfinding strategies being in place. In my experience though, this seems to be a major factor in a project’s success. During early design phases, we need to ask ourselves what is the desired user experience, and apply this to everything from navigating a carpark to finding the washrooms. When each step of the journey is positive, simple and efficient, users are more likely to return and tell others of their positive experience.

Increased revenue

While we expect happy users to return, what can we consider while they are within these public spaces? Wayfinding provides an opportunity to influence behaviours and can almost act as a form of marketing.

Often project developers face challenges of low foot fall to certain areas of the site. While this may be due to some planning and architectural challenges, Wayfinding strategies can influence and inform users on these spaces that they may have not known about previously.

Such an approach can also be used to drive more people to an area who had no intentions of visiting it until they saw such information. As an example, take a typical mall’s food court. The users of the food court are those who typically are already in the mall shopping. Increased revenue opportunities through Wayfinding strategies suggest informing potential customers of the food court outside and surrounding the mall by providing clear signage, identification, road ways, and easy parking and pedestrian access to enter the food court. A whole new demographic of a lunch time business crowd now can add to the revenues. Based on this approach, entire Wayfinding strategies for public spaces can be developed before architectural concepts are completed.

To those at the forefront of this discipline they have recognised that the future is going beyond just signage design, and rather in to a new field where the ultimate goal is to have a positive impact on the way people use public spaces and keep them coming back.