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.
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.