By Craig M. Berger
The term ‘wayfinding’ has come a long way since Kevin Lynch first used it in an architectural context in his 1960 book, The Image of the City, where he defined wayfinding as the consistent organization of sensory cues in the external environment. In 1984, Romedi Passini’s book Wayfinding in Architecture expanded the definition to encompass a combination of sensory elements including visual graphics, tactile surfaces, and audible communications.
Wayfinding through visual communication, and particularly through signs, has grown as a field dramatically over the last three decades as part of the profession of environmental graphic design (EGD).
Today, there is considerable wayfinding expertise available when planning airports, hospitals, college campuses, and offices, among other facilities. The idea of a professional environmental graphic designer with skills in wayfinding design has been validated by multiple books, seminars, and educational programs.
Retail wayfinding, however, has defied being channelled into a specific discipline. Instead, the field has been treated as a component of multiple retail disciplines such as visual merchandising, experience design, and technology-driven adaptations like digital and mobile innovations, which are well entrenched with their own associations, academic institutions, and publications.
To understand best practices for wayfinding signs in retail, it is important to understand how each of these disciplines relates to wayfinding.
Retail wayfinding is heavily driven by analysis and best practices, which sets it apart from other initiatives. Profitable retailers tend to
be meticulous record takers and are constantly experimenting with approaches to attract customers. Given the complex interplay between merchandising, distribution, promotion, and customer experience, the best-managed retailers often have a firm hand on both traditional practices and new innovations.
The psychology of shopping
Retail wayfinding starts with the development of a strategy for managing the customer’s in-store experience. In his books Why We Buy and Call of the Mall, Paco Underhill introduced the idea that shopping is a cognitive science, and buyer outcomes can be improved by successfully manipulating the physical environment through store planning, placement of displays, and use of signs. This field has advanced into a more sophisticated understanding of how people behave in retail settings compared to internet-based environments. David Kepron’s book Retail (r)Evolution expanded on the idea
of measuring the customer experience by analyzing retail stores as social environments where the customer seeks entertainment in addition to buying products.
Store planning is deeply rooted in tradition. Supermarkets and department stores have used similar planning formulas for decades. Signs, too, have closely conformed to practices honed over years of experience. The ‘racetrack’ and ‘grid’ plans developed by retailers in the ’50s and the sign practices used to support them are still in use today, with small modifications. Some companies have grown famous at breaking traditional store layout models and redefining the role of signs to support them, but tradition and experience still play an important role in influencing the overall customer experience.
One area where signs have grown to play an important role, even in traditional plan designs, has been with the installation of brand-specific product displays as visual cues in key areas of the store to attract attention. While this approach dates back to the World’s Fairs of the 19th century, in recent years companies have realized the importance of making these displays central to the customer experience. For example, early in its history, Ikea broke away from traditional store-planning methods with a format that combined practices from showrooms, supermarkets, and warehouses. The signs were revolutionary, adopting graphic approaches and typography from transportation facilities like airports and train stations and applying them to a retail environment.
Another major innovation is the use of a hierarchy of signs and displays that visually break the store into components—from large departments to specific product brands. While this trend started in smaller stores with vertical spaces like convenience stores and pharmacies, it has slowly become a key strategy in apparel and houseware stores today. For example, Topshop has employed a large toolkit of visual elements to support wayfinding including a hierarchy of illuminated elements such as neon icon signs, directories, and product displays.
Another significant trend in store planning is the ‘store-in-a-store’ strategy, where a major brand represents its products by creating mini pavilions or entire sections with their own branding, fixtures, and displays. While this approach has been used heavily in department stores for some time, it is now common in a variety of retail and non-retail environments—from banks to restaurants and airports.
Experience design plays a dominant role in store planning and retail wayfinding methodologies. The term was first used in B. Joseph Pine II’s and James H. Gilmore’s 1999 book, The Experience Economy, to explain how companies have transformed from simply creating products and services to packaging experiences for customers. Today, dozens of business and design consultancies specialize in experience design, and their methods have completely transformed retail environments and store planning.
One specific area where experience design has had an enormous impact is reinforcing consistency between the wayfinding hierarchy of physical stores and websites, marketing materials, and signs. Reinforcing a consistent brand nomenclature and terminology across mediums is a core strategy for retailers looking to improve their brand image. For example, Walmart went through a complete renovation some years ago based on an experience analysis by Lippincott, a creative consultancy, which analyzed and improved the brand experience across mediums. Several improvements were made, including the design of interior sales signs and website formatting, which ensured these elements worked in conjunction to create an immersive shopping experience. These modifications proved successful, resulting in a seven per cent increase in store traffic among higher-income customers.