What Makes A Good Wayfinding System?
The concept of wayfinding is an important part of any well designed environment. When visiting a strange new place, viewers need to be able to find their way to their destination. A good wayfinding system will allow them to reach their destination easily, quickly and (hopefully) with as few headaches as possible. So what things make a wayfinding system successful?
Obviously the most important aspect of any good wayfinding system is that it needs get the viewer where they want to go. It needs to have clear navigation paths with well defined routes that make it easy for viewers to move from their current location to their destination. Clear identification, directional, orientation and necessary regulatory information should also be provided. Decision points should be clearly indicated and marked in advance. Once a viewer reaches a key decision point, help should be available to provide directional choices and point the viewer where they need to go.
While good design is important, it should be secondary and enforce or enrich the message or information provided. Navigating a strange place is difficult enough without having to process a different design at each point along the way. A consistent, recognizable design across all elements of a wayfinding system will reassure and relax the viewer, allowing them to focus on the information. A good system will use the same typefaces throughout, a similar family of icons and consistent color hierarchy or design elements. It goes back to the old adage — good design is invisible.
Clear Organization & Designation
Whether in a museum exhibit or an urban environment, places, information and locations should be organized into distinct areas or districts. Each area should have a unique design or theme different from all the rest. Subdivided areas break down a larger environment into more digestible chunks. They also help the viewer know their current location, and provide clues of what to look for when seeking a destination.
Information is Understandable, Legible and Well Designed
Good information design is crucial to a successful wayfinding system. Navigational or informative content should be presented in a legible typeface with good contrast that can be seen at various sizes and distances. Typography should have a clear hierarchy, highlighting the most important information. The language and tone should be easy to understand. Well designed content will help the viewer retain information or easily find their destination, while poorly designed information will only confuse and frustrate them.
Ease of Orientation
A successful wayfinding system should provide visual clues to the viewer to help them orient themselves in their current location. Each area or location should be uniquely designed (going back to clear organization and designation) and help the visitor identify where they are currently and which direction they face. Memorable landmarks or waypoints help visitors identify where they are in relation to an environment, and clearly marked destinations help them see where they are going.
Visible and Recognizable
Good design may be invisible, but elements of a wayfinding system should not be. Signs, directories and stations should stand out and be easily seen from any distance or angle. Signs and directionals should have good placement — vehicular signage should be visible from a distance while in a vehicle, pedestrian signage should be within eye level while walking. They should also be placed along clear sightlines, placed where visitors need to find them, to avoid getting lost in the clutter. Decision points and destinations should be clearly indicated in advance to avoid getting a visitor lost.
Functional, Interesting and Accessible to All Audiences
Other forms of design or communications may have a target audience they are tailored to, but wayfinding design should be functional to a wide and varied audience. Wayfinding elements should be usable by anyone, being functional and offering something interesting to people of all ages. Information should be provided to a quick glance or a prolonged study. Accessibility is also an important concern. Wayfinding systems should be usable and accessible to people with disabilities as well, accounting for deafness, blindness or color blindness, wheelchair access or otherwise.
Simple and Concise
The best wayfinding systems are simple, telling a visitor what they need to know in as little language as possible. Necessary information should be brief, allowing a visitor to find their destination while in a hurry or in the flow of traffic. Clear, simple but limited navigation choices should be provided so as to direct the visitor without overwhelming them.
Provide a Map or Directory
There are many ways to provide a visitor with a bird’s eye view of an environment. Map stations or directories can be placed sporadically (and clearly marked) in malls, museums or public transit systems. Printed maps are helpful for visitors to study in advance and are frequently used in travel guides, theme parks or national parks. There are also digital maps, provided on websites, at interactive map stations or through new smartphone applications. Maps provide an extra method of orientation to visitors, allowing them to see the organization of the entire area and know what waypoints or landmarks to look for.
Solid Research and Strategic Foundation
Perhaps the most important aspect of any good wayfinding system is that it should be based on sound research and strategy. Haphazardly placed signage can be extremely confusing and frustrating, often times even contradictory. Instead of reactionary response or dealing with individual signs, a larger strategy and wayfinding plan should be used, outlining entry and exit points, destinations, decision points and clear visitor paths. In his book The Wayfinding Handbook, David Gibson outlines four wayfinding strategies based on historical city models — the use of districts, streets, connectors or landmarks. Whatever strategy is used, it should fit the environment, be functional and backed by plenty of research.
Wayfinding systems that consider these aspects will be well on their way to moving visitors quickly and efficiently to their destinations. Visitors that find their way easily will find the journey much more enjoyable and have a greater chance of visiting the city, museum or using the transit system more frequently.
Readers, in your experience what other aspects, elements or principles make up a successful wayfinding system? Leave your ideas in the comments below!