By Tom Graczkowski
As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. This rings especially true when it comes to producing effective wayfinding sign systems. From a very young age, people learn to recognize colourful shapes and symbols that carry meanings, such as safety and restroom signs. Extensive research shows people are capable of committing huge amounts of information to memory by associating it with mental images.
An emphasis on visual communications is therefore essential for an effective wayfinding system. Nevertheless, it is surprising how many public facilities, hotels, hospitals, museums and other built environments offer little to no visual wayfinding for visitors.
Laying out routes
Wayfinding can be considered the planning stage of navigation, since its purpose is to lay out a route throughout a built environment or other space, so people can efficiently reach their destinations. As such, it requires the creation of a layout of a given space based on a cognitive map for solving location-based problems.
Another important aspect of wayfinding, of course, is to display maps and other types of information where visitors can see them. An information display helps people orient themselves within a new environment and then make definitive decisions for themselves, whether choosing an optimal route, finding a shortcut or planning a sequence of trips.
A good wayfinding system, therefore, should make each visitor aware of his/her location and how it relates to his/her destination. Visual cues, such as colours, recognizable features and clearly marked pathways, will help visitors successfully get to their destinations. The use of internationally recognizable symbols is particularly helpful in breaking down language barriers and, for that matter, communicating with people who cannot read, have a disability and/or are too embarrassed to ask for assistance.
The risks of poor wayfinding
In a good wayfinding system, the information should be accurate, precise and up-to-date, yet also simple enough so it does not become confusing. New visitors are calmed when they can access sufficient amounts of clear information, as this reassures them they will reach their destinations easily.
Without such access, studies show disorientation can lead to stress, feelings of helplessness, headaches, raised blood pressure and fatigue. When these symptoms are prolonged, the visitor may feel threatened. Bad wayfinding creates bad experiences, including real risks in cases of emergencies where people become alarmed but do not know what to do and where to go.
Good wayfinding, on the other hand, communicates to visitors that a facility is well-organized and professional. It not only promotes the facility as a capable place, but also reduces the stress and frustration associated with poor wayfinding, such that visitors will feel more open and trusting.