Clear Directions – Making Wayfinding More Visitor Friendly

Clear Directions – Making Wayfinding More Visitor Friendly

Clear Directions – Making Wayfinding More Visitor Friendly

This article originally appeared in MCD – Medical Construction and Design magazine in March 2013


Wayfinding  was first described centuries ago as a system of navigation used by people who traveled land and sea by unmarked routes.

The indigenous people of Polynesia astounded Western sailors by their use of tides, movement of waves, and cloud formations to navigate huge distances in open canoes.

They did not have maps or charts, relying instead on an innate and inherited sense of how to find their way.

Wayfinding Today

Today, wayfinding is more commonly associated with the planned design of moving people from where they are to where they need to go.

In 1960, urban planner Kevin Lynch first applied the term “way-finding” in his book Image of the City. He defined the language of space and began a conversation about how planners cue people to move through and use urban spaces.

Work by psychologists and researchers in the 1970’s and 1980’s brought scientific study into how we think about directing people through both interior and exterior spaces. In 1984, environmental psychologist Romedi Passini published Wayfinding in Architecture, defining and giving structure to wayfinding as part of an overall design plan. He is frequently credited with creating the common terms and definitions of wayfinding.

Through the 1970’s and 1980’s while architects, designers, and urban planners were shaping the language of wayfinding, our society was changing. There was a new awareness about using design as a way of including people with disabilities.

In 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The law introduced standards requiring building owners to create accommodations for people with a wide range of disabilities including vision, hearing, mobility, behavioral, and cognitive issues.

The Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibilities Guidelines (ADAAG) is a comprehensive design guide which includes rules for signage and wayfinding. While not covered under the ADA, inclusiveness also grew to include visitors who do not read or speak English.

Today, wayfinding has evolved into its own discipline; many firms specialize in creating wayfinding solutions for businesses and municipalities. Architectural training programs regularly include wayfinding as part of their curriculum.

So where have we arrived after 50 years of talking and analyzing?

Too often, we still have visitors wandering through our facilities, hopelessly lost, consulting  hastily scrawled directions on a piece of paper or peering down corridors hoping that a big green arrow will suddenly appear and point them to their destination.

Why does this happen?

Often, part of the blame is that buildings evolve over time. What was once a compact cluster of services may have sprawled into whatever space was available.

Another reason: wayfinding strategies are often added with every new addition or renovation – but may not get modified throughout your campus. You may have multiple wayfinding mashups in place rather than a unified system.

So, how can we get from here (people lost) to there (people moving confidently to their destination)?

First Step: Figure out where your biggest problems are right now.

Do you always have people getting lost when going to get an MRI? Do scattered doctor’s suites make it confusing for patients to move seamlessly? Visitors frustrated about not finding the coffee shop?

Talk to staff members – receptionists, intake coordinators, schedulers, and security – anyone who must direct people from place to place.  They are your eyes and ears to visitor frustrations.

Make a list of your problem places that come up repeatedly from staff. Many healthcare facilities currently sponsor Patient and Family Advisory Committees (PFAC) to provide feedback.  The PFAC members can be a valuable resource for evaluating your wayfinding system.

Don’t be afraid to talk to visitors – they are the ultimate test of any system. If it doesn’t work for them, it doesn’t matter how pretty or high tech it is. Never forget the objective of good wayfinding is people moving confidently where they need to go.

Second Step: Inventory your current way finding tools – but look at it from the visitor’s point of view.

Take off your “local knowledge glasses.” We all get used to moving through our own spaces; we know that to get to the imaging department, we need to take the second corridor on the right and then go through the third door on the left.  But maybe during that renovation last year, a sign was removed and never replaced, and suddenly, it’s not clear to a visitor that THIS is the correct door to get to the imaging department.

Using the list that you assembled in Step One, start where your visitors would start (the lobby or the doctor’s offices for example) and then try to find your way without using your local knowledge.

Move slowly and thoughtfully. If a visitor has to go down a long corridor, are there signs or is there cueing along the way to tell them that they are on the right path? If there are doors to go through, are they inviting or do they look like private spaces? Are maps placed throughout your facility, clearly marking things like elevators, restrooms, and major areas such as treatment suites and doctor’s offices?

Does your facility have a volunteer program? Consider asking a new volunteer to be a “secret shopper. ” Ask them to find their way from the front door to an outpatient department and report back.  Walk with a few visitors who are unfamiliar with your facility and ask their opinion about how easy or hard it is to find things – and what they would do to make it clearer.

You may be surprised to hear that the addition of a couple of signs or another map would make all the difference.

Third Step: Evaluate Your Wayfinding for Consistency and Clarity

As facilities evolve over time, different methods of wayfinding may have been installed.

This can mean that in one part of the building, square red signs indicate information while another part of your campus uses rectangular blue signs. Some busy corridors may have had so many signs added over time that it’s easy to miss the one you need among the clutter. “You Are Here” maps may be out of date or not include other parts of your campus – or may show too much information, making it hard for visitors to navigate.

Walk around your building taking photos of each major category of wayfinding (directional, informational, maps, visual cueing, pictographs, paths, etc.). Create an oversized map of each part of your facility, indicating where things are working well – and where things need improvement.

Using information gathered from Step One and Step Two, take a critical look at what is working and what needs clarification.

Would adding signs that project out from the wall help visitors find elevators tucked into an alcove? Would creating signs with logical groups or color coding help clarify a busy corridor? Would moving an information desk to a more visible location make it more useful to visitors? Can you take advantage of decreasing costs of technology to add touch screen maps or information kiosks? Would adding colored lights or LED signs convey your message? What about tactile or audible cueing or signs? Think three-dimensionally. Would hanging a directional or sign away from a wall increase its usability?

It’s not just signage that counts. Visual cueing can mean color stripes on walls or doors, paths outlined with flooring, markers such as awnings or a kiosk. Can you create zones that have specific, consistent look and feel to tell visitors where they are?

As you’re evaluating, also take into account both your typical visitor and visitors who may have disability or language issues. Sight impaired visitors may need Braille or tactile cueing on the floor. Pictographs may help all visitors – and not just non-English readers.

Consistency will help all visitors move through your space with confidence. Unify your wayfinding so that visitors will look for information on a particular color and shape sign and find  pictographs for bathrooms that show the same type of figures. Your goal is to make the experience seamless for visitors regardless of where they are on your campus.


While it may not be possible to keep everyone from getting lost in your facility, a careful evaluation of current problem areas and existing wayfinding tools can give you a starting point for improvements. Making those tools consistent and clear will make everyone’s visit more pleasant, perhaps lessening the stress for all visitors.

Wayfinding is more than just an opportunity to put signs with your corporate brand throughout a facility or point cars into a parking structure.

At its best, wayfinding really IS the imaginary big green arrow, pointing visitors confidently in the right direction.




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