On Core Values for Wayfinding Systems

Sep 27

At its most simple, a wayfinding system helps guests find their way in your environment and makes the information they need accessible. That system might include signage, icons, text, environmental art, and architectural cues (like the dominance of entrances or a clear deliniation of public and private spaces). The system helps direct, identify, inform, and restrict/permit guests.

Why Should You Care?

We all need to get places, to do things, and we need help navigating the world. Most of us interact with wayfinding systems in large scale ways, like the US highway system or an international airport, and in smaller ways, like the handful of signs that direct you through the drive-thru of your local In-N-Out or Chick-fil-A. Wayfinding is such a normal part of our daily visual landscape that it typically fades into the background and, like so many design decisions that are made, we don’t even notice it. At least until it fails us.

I’m currently up to my eyeballs in wayfinding system planning and implementation for two campuses we’re building, and these are the main things I try to keep in mind:

1. Good wayfinding loves people

Love might seem like an odd attribute for a system, but good wayfinding proves you love people and want them to enjoy your environment.

One of the most basic human needs is a good place to pee. If you don’t tell a guest where they can do that in your environment, you’re not serving them in their time of need. (And yes, confused peepee dancing definitely counts as a time of need.)

If you show a guest the way to their destination with minimal effort on their part, they’re much more inclined to enjoy your environment and stick around, and maybe, just maybe, listen to what you have to say. Wayfinding is just like any other relational exchange—if you help me, I like you.

2. Good wayfinding is intuitive and self-navigable

A clever font or stylized icons may look interesting in the vacuum of your computer screen, but when a guest is making their way through your environment, do your indicators make sense? Is the text readable? Is it readable from a distance? Does a guest have to repeatedly ask your staff where to find certain things? Are there clear, logical hierarchies to rooms, naming schemes, etc.?

Give your guests a clear path to follow, and don’t force them to be dependent on informational/cultural gatekeepers or too-clever visual metaphors to find their way.

3. Good wayfinding is consistent, always

If you implement a wayfinding signage system that begins in a parking lot, carry it through every nook and cranny of your environment. Don’t leave a guest marooned somewhere in the depths of a building. If you’re not willing to be consistent, everywhere—with all the effort, maintenance, and budget it will take—don’t start. An inconsistent environment is not a loving or intuitive environment.

4. Good wayfinding enables a decision everywhere a decision can be made

People have to make too many decisions everyday. The universe fights against them. Entropy. Thorns and thistles. Difficult to navigate environments. Peepee dances. When a guest has more than one directional option in front of them, enable them to make that decision through a familiar signage system or a clear visual sightline. Repeat anywhere there’s more than one directional option.

5. Good wayfinding is designed with the first time in mind

It might feel like overkill to implement a wayfinding system, but never forget you’re not the guest—you know your own environment. You’ve spent time there. You know all the intricacies, oddities and inconsistencies. And once a guest has visited your environment a few times, they’ll likely get comfortable, too. But during their first visit, in their first impression, never assume they know where anything is. Design and plan for fresh eyes.

Bonus: Arrows should never point to text

This is less a core value and more a personal preference, and you can fight me on it, but I think you’re 100% wrong. Yes, in the aforementioned vacuum of your computer screen, putting all your arrows/icons down the left (or right) side of your signs might seem preferable. It’s certainly easier to implement. But it just makes your job easier, not the guest’s.

If an arrow sits on the left side of text and points to the text, you’re forcing the guest to read the text left to right, then scan back to the left to know which way to go. If you have multiple destinations on one sign, you’re forcing them to do it repeatedly. Stop it. It’s poor hierarchy and usability. Physical things have UI/UX, too.

Go Forth

I’ve had to learn this stuff through years of repetitive trial and failure, so I hope this helps you save some time, should you ever need to help people find their way, at whatever scale you find yourself designing for.


  1. Brendan

    Thanks for these tips! I’m thinking through some signage needs right now and this post gave me some good encouragement and insight.

    I’m the only designer on staff at my church and reading posts like this helps me feel like I’m getting input form a team of designers! If you think of it, I would love to see some of the results of the campus signage projects you’re working on.

  2. Yes, YES, YES!! For 29 years, I walked in the side door of my church, and every single time I did I faced a blank wall. And every single time I did, I wondered “How would a visitor know where to go if they wanted to find the kid’s class or theirs or the bathroom or the choir or the sanctuary or the office?” It was the absolutely perfect place for a SIGN and I could never get ANYONE to put one up.

    Oddly, at the main entrance, they did put up one SIGN. It pointed the way down the hall toward the office. There was no other way to go! But when traversing the hallway, all those doors, the church office did not have a…oh nevermind.

  3. Great post Joshua! Would love to see what you guys come up with. Below are some links to posts I’ve done in the past on signage. Perhaps one might help.

    http://www.jonedmiston.com/?p=414 (oops we have an arrow pointing at text…)

  4. These are spot-on. The entirety of designing these systems is making it easier for first-timers and those less familiar with our spaces. At Evolve Church (where I serve as volunteer worship leader/designer/whateverman) we were, until recently, a completely portable operation, which presented a unique constraint to our wayfinding signage design process. It had to be portable (stand-up banners), it had to be reconfigurable (if we moved locations, which we did), and we had to choose the right words to describe each destination as to be recognizable, but in-keeping with our identity (sanctuary, worship center, main worship, or auditorium?).

    We eventually settled on a simple left-right arrow theme, as that seemed to be the most reconfigurable. And in an attempt to be great artists, we stole great ideas from other churches (like Newspring).

  5. This answered my email to you beautifully. : ) Thank you sir!

  6. This was really helpful. Would love any further posts on the subject if you ever have more you’d like to say.

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