Wayfinding: Developing inclusive washroom signage

September 7, 2017


Image courtesy Entro

By Cristina Kelly
In response to recent Canadian legislation and social discussions addressing instances of exclusion encountered by sexual-minority individuals who do not conform to conventional gender norms, Toronto-based environmental graphic design (EGD) firm Entro Communications has assisted the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) Group in developing a new standard for appropriate signage for ‘universal’ washrooms (specifically, single-use facilities, where a lockable room contains a single toilet and sink) in health-care facilities. The design challenge was to improve upon the common pictograms currently used for washroom signage, so as to set a precedent that would accurately represent an inclusive environment, while requiring little explanation.

Given the focus of Entro’s work with wayfinding sign systems on how people experience public spaces and assets, the company was well-positioned to take an active role in helping the industry strategically shift such assets and related services to become more accessible and inclusive. The company and CSA’s combined efforts with respect to health-care facilities have since been shared with the Public Service of Canada, the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), 3M Canada and IBM, among other organizations seeking ways to make their own spaces more inclusive for all individuals.

Health care and beyond
The standard covers best practices, including the accommodation of Canadians’ rights to gender identity and expression, clear designations for accessibility and effective language and nomenclature. Entro began to receive questions from clients who also wanted to incorporate the needs and preferences of a wider community into their signage, but wondered which would be the right pictogram to use and how it would 
fit in with other accessibility and directional pictograms, as well as with overall environmental branding. Thus, the standard could help provide clarity for spaces beyond its original scope.

To devise further sign design recommendations and help address confusion in the broader design sector, Entro collaborated with its industry partners and clients, but particularly with Marni Panas, senior diversity and inclusion advisor for Alberta Health Services and a recognized advocate for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Queer (LGBTQ) issues in Edmonton, who has been deeply involved with CSA in its standard for health-care facilities. The goal was to learn more about organizational challenges, the many options that have surfaced and the communities most affected by existing washroom signage.

“Our number one priority was talking to the experts—meaning those who have personal experiences with non-inclusive signage,” says Wayne McCutcheon, Entro’s partner in charge.

Steps toward inclusivity
With respect to wayfinding signage, four principal scenarios exist for washrooms:

Single-use washrooms, with a single toilet and sink in a lockable room.
Multi-stall washrooms with urinals, which have traditionally been designated for male users.
Multi-stall washrooms without urinals, which have traditionally been designated for female users.
Other multi-use facilities with individually enclosed toilet stalls and a common sink area.

For the purposes of its recommendations, Entro addressed best practices and a signage standard in response to the first of these scenarios. The familiar gender-specific washrooms have already been discussed in relation to their ‘binary’ designations and, for many organizations, the solution has been to introduce a third option with inclusive washrooms, which are intended for use by individuals of any identity or expression. In many cases, after all, single-stall washrooms already exist within a facility; the public is simply being made more aware of their availability.

These washrooms are providing valuable opportunities for public discourse and education about inclusivity and acceptance. School boards, for example, are proudly announcing their commitment to ensuring the availability of inclusive washrooms, while other groups have made statements about their political stance on the issue. It is important, however, to take steps in the right direction by being well-informed. Many organizations are using pictograms that either reintroduce binary gender norms or refer explicitly to the inclusion of transgender individuals, rather than to universal inclusivity.

“These organizations have great intentions, but need to thoroughly review their solutions and make sure they are reflecting the needs of their community,” says Panas.


There have been numerous design approaches in recent years for inclusive washroom signage.
File images

The broader context
Bill C-16, An Act to Amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code, was introduced in Parliament on May 17, 2016. This year, it passed a vote in the Senate and received royal assent, paving the way for it to become law. It will add “gender expression or identity” as a protected ground to the Canadian Human Rights Act and to existing provisions in the Criminal Code that deal with hate propaganda, incitement to genocide and aggravating factors in sentencing.

The goal of the law is to ensure all Canadians can identify and express their gender without suffering from discrimination. Most of the provinces and territories have already updated their human rights legislation to include such protection and similar legislation has been at the forefront of social developments around the world, but Canada has a unique opportunity with the bill to continue support for tolerant rhetoric through both legislation and community advocacy.

This is not the first time washrooms have been a focus of political debate, nor the first time graphic design has helped to solve social and political challenges. At the root of this subject is the messaging used on signage, including both wording and pictograms. While some people may assume the nature of an image on a washroom door or directional sign is not important or does not have much effect, sign designers know pictograms are actually powerful tools with respect to people’s cognitive systems. The choice of words and symbols helps define the way a society communicates.

“Signage is powerful,” says McCutcheon at Entro. “We know that very well, as we work in this industry, but those outside of it may not understand how it can affect people psychologically. We have the ability to influence our clients’ decisions at key points in the design process. While we were already recommending inclusive washroom signage, we felt it was crucial to get the same information out to other organizations that could benefit from it, as well as the public.”

With this intent, Entro put forward a series of guiding principles for the transition to inclusive washroom signage.

Focusing on service, not identity
With inclusive washrooms becoming required in more and more facilities, designers often ask which is the most appropriate way to display multiple gender identities on one sign. The answer is not to do so at all, but instead take 
a design cue from a key principle that relates 
to all signage: the simpler the icon, the better.

By not focusing on identities, signage can instead focus on the service provided, as it does in other scenarios. When only certain gender-associated icons are displayed on a sign, certain groups receive the message they cannot access the related service or it simply does not apply to them; but if the service itself is portrayed instead, i.e. with a simple pictogram of a toilet, then there is no risk 
of identity-based exclusion.

After all, countless other services—from public transportation to waste management—are identified with signs that do not need to display their users’ identities, but instead rely on simple icons representing those services. No one identifies themselves by gender when taking a bus or throwing garbage into a trash can.

It is important to realize, contrary to popular belief, gender identity is not relevant to washroom use, either. Visiting a single-use washroom is no different from partaking 
in any other common public services and, therefore, does not require gender identification on the door.

Signage should not emphasize the person walking through the door, but rather focus on the service that person is seeking to use.

Keeping communication clear
Following this same principle of simplicity further, it is best to include only the elements that are needed to convey a message. This is especially true for individuals who cannot read the local language and/or are vision-impaired.

As past experience with sign design shows, to be understood quickly and easily, pictograms need to be easily distinguishable from their background and surroundings and contain as little detail as possible. Following this principle, Entro recommended a sign featuring the word ‘washroom,’ the toilet pictogram and—where applicable with respect to physical accessibility—the already well-
established wheelchair pictogram. This is where simplicity is particularly beneficial to design, as multiple pieces 
of necessary information can be conveyed without 
overcrowding the sign. Navigation is made easier when individuals can quickly identify (a) the service and (b) their ability to access it.


Entro considered a variety of approaches, but found most lacked clarity and/or accuracy. The simplicity of a toilet pictogram provided greater clarity and less chance of exclusion.
Images courtesy Entro

Paying attention to detail
While simplicity is key, attention to detail is also important. Along with language and pictograms, this attention can be signalled through the choice of sign materials.

In the current period of uncertainty and confusion relating to inclusive washrooms, many organizations have understandably implemented temporary signs as they transition to more universal designs. While this is a commendable step forward, a more permanent response, representing greater effort to ensuring the right signage is in place, signals a higher level of care for the public.

Thus, the production of permanent signs for inclusive washrooms should become a priority and be undertaken in a timely manner. And by making sure such details as the pictogram, font, colours and materials fit well with the branding of the surrounding building or organization, a commitment is indicated to the provision of truly inclusive services.

Ultimately, all signs should look professional and be installed with clear intention, representing the efforts behind them.

Wide applicability and consistency
The issue of inclusive washroom signage has often been portrayed in the media and in political discussions as relevant only to members of the LGBTQ community and, more specifically, people who are transgender—yet it actually affects everyone.

The right design can change the experience of anyone who feels excluded by existing washroom situations. One example is when a parent of one gender needs to accompany their child of another gender. This has been a common issue with public washroom access and use for many decades, but recent attention to inclusive washrooms can be of benefit in resolving it.

Indeed, anyone should be able to walk into a hospital or other public venue and know they will not encounter non-inclusive services or signage. With this in mind, it is essential for standards to be created for everyone, so the same signs will be used across all types of facilities, fostering familiarity and allowing individuals who require inclusive washrooms to locate them easily.


The new standard was developed for health-care facilities, but has also inspired active interest from other organizations.

Organizational education
In recognizing there will be a transitional phase for the adoption of such signage, there is a need for education to help shift societal perceptions. Individuals within an organization, including staff, volunteers and patrons, should be given adequate information and resources so they understand the context and the benefits. This will be important not only in explaining why the change is happening, but also—in terms of wayfinding—in encouraging them to provide assistance in the future to any visitors who are looking for inclusive washrooms.

The importance of inclusive design
As exemplified in the new recommendations 
for inclusive washroom signage, it will be the responsibility of artists, designers, communicators and other members of the sign design community to recognize societal changes and reflect them in the public assets they create.

In this case, rather than specifically focusing on individuals who do not conform to conventional gender roles, gender was taken entirely out of the equation for sign design; the purpose was not to highlight differences, but rather to create a system that does not rely on such differences. One of the aims was to set a precedent with a new standard that (a) is more representative of an inclusive environment, but (b) requires little explanation.

Companies and other organizations can only more forward on such issues when they have research, recommendations and information drawn from the communities that are most affected. As such, it is important for the sign industry to include these voices and take their experiences into consideration when designing public signage for clients.

“We can’t ignore our understanding of the larger issue at hand,” says Entro’s McCutcheon, “or the impact signage has on everyone who uses it.”

CSA and Entro’s efforts are part of a larger movement to shift the understanding of inclusivity from a convenience to a fundamental human right—and they are already having an effect.

“Recently, one of the hospitals here in Edmonton reached out, saying they had read about the standard and were going to use the signage that was recommended,” says Panas.

In such ways, changes in mainstream public communications and behaviour can result directly from new, evidence-based design recommendations.

Cristina Kelly is a communications and brand strategist for Entro Communications. For more information, visit www.entro.com[5].


  1. [Image]: https://www.signmedia.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Inclusive-Washroom-e1504793145197.jpg
  2. [Image]: https://www.signmedia.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/edited1.jpg
  3. [Image]: https://www.signmedia.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/edited2.jpg
  4. [Image]: https://www.signmedia.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Inclusive-Washroom2.jpg
  5. www.entro.com: http://www.entro.com

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