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Wayfinding, Art and Design – Getting Creative

gran canaria mapping

Signage in Gran Canaria designed as pavement (sidewalk) paintings.

A Complex Process, Simple Design

Designing for wayfinding provides some quite unique and interesting challenges for graphics artists and designers for a number of reasons. Unlike many situations where you are looking to design something new, original, flashy and trying to design to separate your design from those of others, in wayfinding design the opposite is needed. In wayfinding, the challenge is to design something that is different and yet which sometimes needs to be:

  • Easily recognisable
  • Understandable by people of different languages and cultures (such as in airports)
  • Suitable for people of varying abilities, including the visibility impaired and the hard of hearing (do remember that signage is not just visible signage but also audio etc)
  • Signage is readable from different distances and heights
  • Lighting is designed for both indoor and outdoor environments and conditions
  • Is designed also to fit in with the branding of the environment or location where it is being installed and to match the family of signs in the same location.

A brand new jazzy and stylish looking sign, which most people will not recognise, is pointless no matter how clever the design and imagination put into it. The best example of all are the toilet (restroom) symbols used throughout the world including in international airports.

Toilet signage design

Toilet signage design in Birmingham NEC

No matter where you go in the world, the use of symbols to show where the men’s, women’s and disabled toilets are, are universal in design. Differentiation can be made through colour, such as above, where the orange is the brand colour of the location in question.

Golden triangle wayfaring signage

Golden Triangle in Thailand toilets signage

In Thailand, in the Golden Triangle, signage to direct people to the toilets (restrooms for Americans) is very similar to that used in the UK, China, Korea, Sweden and just about every country in the world. Given its location close to the Mekong River, a blue background works quite nicely.

Now, whilst toilet signage might not be the most exciting topic in wayfinding art and design, the point here is to highlight the importance of clearly to understand signage, which is usable for so many different nationalities and user types. Where symbols can be used, you are immediately removing the issue that exists with the written language i.e. whereby, if you do not speak the language, you may have a problem to understand the signage. Symbols and the use of imagery on signs breaks down these language issues in wayfinding signage design.

Examples of Bad Design

Signage in one UK museum to designate the floor level.

Designing new and unknown graphics can actually be worse so a combination of simplicity, clarity and strongly communicative design is key in wayfinding. (Paul Symonds)

There is no shortage of badly designed wayfinding signs and they can be found everywhere. New graduates, who are looking to do something different and seasoned designers  who simply lack a background in wayfinding and the intricacies of navigation, art and design alike, continually over-design and sometimes under-design wayfnding signage.

In the sign above, you may or may not have seen the small red arrow in the middle of the letter “b” to mark Floor B. Red on an orange background is not clear and, in truth, I was confused when I was there. Is the sign marking Floor “B” or saying that Floor B is down the stairs? If downstairs then, where is the marking for this floor? Confused? I am! And this is one of the top museums in London, UK.

Bins as part of the wayfinding narrative

Wayfinding signage design does not need to be limited to directional signage.

Art an design in wayfinding and wayfaring can be extended to many a number of prompts, objects and items including,for example, bins (see image above). Wayfinding is about helping people to get between A and B and re-design of items as waste bins can act as a way of creating a much much powerful branded experience and to provide more information in a simple and effective manner.

More signs in the building

This sign above, from the Wales Millennium Centre in Wales, provides another example of signage gone wrong. Small hard to read and see symbols (unless you are stood in front of the sign), arrows pointing into text (arrows should always point away from text), small rather than strong drawn arrows, a mix-match of English and Welsh, and a confusing seating set up, with both rows and seat numbers having their own arrows on the sign. A great example of very confusing and very poorly designed signage.

The Value of Colour Coding

Colour coded signage

Use of colour coding signage in an exhibition centre.

As a designer, understanding the use of colour when designing for wayfinding is essential. Colour is one of the easiest and most cost effective ways to simplify and improve most wayfinding systems. In the image above, you can see how some very simple colour differentiation immediately makes it much easier to follow a specific colour throughout much of your navigational experience.

Colour is also a fantastic way to overcome the problem associated with multi-language signage (an issue I talked at length about in the “Overcoming language in wayfinding” page). Moreover, design in wayfindng is very much a combination of imagery, text, colour, choices over what materials to use, background lighting and consideration about space (such as what height and distance the signage will need to be readable from). Indeed, designing for wayfinding might initially seem like a very simple process in that, how hard can it be to have a few arrows and some text? Well, now you are perhaps beginning to see the reason why so many people, so often get frustrated and lost.


An example of poor design i.e. colour coding is ignored to differentiate by language.

Signage Design Tips

Art directions

A map of Brighton city centre, UK, as painted onto a wall.

Being artistic and creative in wayfinding needs to be done in such a way that navigating is made easier rather than harder. Whilst the map above is both artistic and creative, it is very difficult to use and impractical and herein lies the problem. Wayfinding signage is for practical needs and so, understanding design for practical use rather than purely fore aesthetics, is the key to understanding art and design for wayfinding.

Bus routes painted onto the bus

Route information designed on the side of a bus

There is certainly plenty of room though, in wayfinding, for creativity and this includes thought for the objects and locations which you can use for signing directions and guiding people. In Brighton, England, above in the photo, the side of buses are used for providing route information. Although an obvious idea and which makes knowing which bus goes exactly where, why has it taken so so long for such an idea to come to life?

assisisted journeys

Gatwick airport special assistance journey

Designing to aid and provide information for those with disabilities and in need of special assistance is an area in which creative design is always needed. Any way in which the special assistance journey can be made easier is particularly useful for stakeholders (ie airport owners) as they seek to create a seamless experience for users. Simple design, good use of colours, good use of symbols and images and clear and easy to understand information.

visibile toilet signs

Toilet signs

Sometimes though, even what seem the best and clearest examples of wayfinding signage can go wrong. In the above picture, the toilet signs are large and seemingly very clear and one might suspect will easily guide users to the toilets (bathrooms for Americans). Take a look now at the picture below and the lack of gradient on the horizontal pictures to make the images visible from down the corridor, is non existent. You cannot see where the toilets are until you have almost passed them. Poor design! The key here is to think about the users and think about how the design incorporates the space and surrounding environment.

hidden restrooms

Creative art and design is not completely impossible and Jenni Sparks is proof of this, with her hand drawn maps popular in many travel locations (see one of her floor maps in the image below which I saw in Gatwick Airport). There are many opportunities in wayfinding to create great art but, as mentioned previously, when pure art meets wayfinding, the focus needs to be on the aesthetic and so this form of art can exists in locations where directions are already obvious and where this new wayfinding art will not create clutter and simply add confusion by its existence. Areas (sticking with the airport example) where people have a lot of time to waste and where entertaining passengers/users is the key, is where creative wayfinding are is best located.

Floor map story telling

Story telling and narrative experience in Gatwick Airport

All photos by Paul Symonds


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