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Using Colours in Wayfinding and Navigation

Written by Paul Symonds
Color coding

Many factors affect wayfinding and navigation in internal and external environments including signage, space, social elements and stake-holder’s needs, to name a few examples. Another factor though and which can have a significant impact on the process and which is often ignored is the use of colour. Colour acts as another option in trying to distinguish between different signage types, affect our moods and direct and guide us and colour is a powerful force. Colour used wrongly though can create confusion and have the opposite effect to the one you are likely looking for. Let us look more deeply into the use of colour (‘color’ if you are American).

Directional Signage

The use of colour in wayfinding is sometimes obvious and easy to see and appreciate. The picture above is a great use of colour and used presently in Victoria train station in London, England. This simplistic idea of coloured lines which are on the floor and which you can follow by foot enable you to find what may be otherwise hard to find locations in a very easy way. Instead of worrying about asking someone else and having to remember a number of different turns and directions, just follow the red line to the Gatwick Express train for example. There is a downside and a very practical dilemma to this method of using lines which stick to the floor. If you want to change the lines it can be very messy to take the lines up and some travel hubs are stuck with lines which now are out of date and send you in the wrong direction. In the future, the use of directional lighting and guidance lines on the floor I suspect will involve digital technologies and this will mean that lines can be adapted and route suggestions change dynamically to accommodate real-time issues such as crowd control.

Red warning

Colour Association, Moods and Space

Certain colours tend to be used on a national and sometimes global level to suggest certain intentions. The most obvious example of this is the colour red which is generally seen as a suggestion of danger or a warning, when red is used in signage, you can expect that important information is being relayed to you.

It is difficult if not impossible, to separate the discourse on the wayfinding experience involving colour from the discourse surrounding tourism space. The use of colour for influencing wayfinding and navigational behaviour is used in ways which are much more than for just signage and yet which can greatly influence our directional mobility. In an airport for example, the use of space and colours is used to often control our mood. Notice for example how when you pass through the security area that the area is very enclosed and even if the walls are white and with the lights on, the feeling is one of a darkened area. The control of power which Foucault (1991) discussed in this situation involves the use of colour through blocking natural light and by using low ceilings and the control of space to influence us cognitively, to let us know to take seriously the security procedures we are about to endure in the security area. Once you exit the security area you will often find yourself walking straight into an area which has natural light i.e. a large windowed area with natural light. If it is a sunny day you can see the bright yellow sunshine again or if you are in the UK, the colour of grey we seem to become accustomed to (even in summertime some years).

When we think about wayfinding and colour, it is important to think not only in terms of directional signage but also to consider this use of what in tourism studies these days, is termed ‘Performance Tourism‘ (Urry and Larsen, 2011) ((Cater and Cloke, 2007). Performance space refers to how a space is used as a whole i.e. to for example include socio-cultural elements. In an airport for example, we need to factor in the the use of colour, space, signage and consider socio-cultural aspects in relation to each other. An airport deals with large numbers of people and many of these people will have hearing or visibility problems. A combination of the use of space (such as a tunnel to guide people) and coloured floor panels can both be used help guide people in the right direction. Not all wayfinding elements are necessarily obvious and yet many of these elements can be very effective.

Colour Coding

Colour coding is a very useful concept and used in the travel and tourism industry widely. Modern day cruise ships can be very large and at first very disorientating and one way to immediately alleviate the confusion of the different floors, is to make each floor a different coded colour. As you step out of a lift (elevator in American) seeing a floor diagram which lists floors as numbers and codes, offers a greater cognitive experience for travellers. Travel is a highly socio-cultural experience in that we by nature have to interact with many other people in travel situations. Given the number of people and the range of their cognitive abilities, wayfinding thus needs to be appropriate for all users and colour coding and the general use of colour certainly aids this process. An elderly cruise traveller who has difficulty with their eye sight and reading small lettering might find the colour coding much easier.

It should be remembered also that not all signage is for directional purposes. Signage can be for many reasons including for informational (i.e. opening times), identification (such as a company’s name or a room’s name) or for comfirmational purposes. A sign in an airport which says ‘Terminal C’ once you reach it not only identifies the terminal but acts as confirmation to a person arriving at that terminal. For an elderly traveller who easily gets stressed or a connecting passenger who is in a hurry, this confirmation can be an important part of the process.

Colour coding in tourism spaces can also be ways to avoid clustering. Using colour offers you another way to portray information to travellers sometimes, without the need for more textual content. Too much textual content can create clutter and result in what is known as clustering (too many competing signs in one small area).

Many large parking areas in travel hubs make great use of colour coding. An airport which uses signs which use alphabetical and numerical markers such as Area C – Zone 1, can also consider providing another marking via the use of colour coded zones. Why not make Area C also differentiated by colour and make the experience even clearer. Color coding can also be used in on-tourism spaces very effectively and hospitals can benefit greatly from the use of colour in wayfinding and the creation of coloured zones.

The sensory receptors we have in our brains are triggered by colours and this has the effect of what in wayfinding is termed ‘environmental differentiation’. Colour is one way in other words to differentiate different parts of the environment in such as way that that in human wayfinding, we can better remember and find different areas or locations within a given space. A good example of this is when different floors of a hotel have different colours or in the case of the P&O cruise ship Arcadia (and other boats) where the different stairs cases on the boat have a different colour scheme. If you are on the red staircase then you know for example that you are on the end of the boat and close to the theatre on-board, rather than on the front of the boat.

Background contrast

Colour contrasts with background

In the example above though, differentiating the two languages by colour would actually be a very good idea so that users can more easily and quickly distinguish which language they are looking at, without really having to consider it.

Colour coding bicycle lanes

Colour coding can also be very effective for bicycle versus pedestrian paths

The use of colour coding also works very well for creating suggestive paths, such as for pedestrians versus cyclists. A very common colour in the UK is red paving for walkers alongside a black path for cyclists and with white bicycle logos painted onto the black cycle lane (see above). This is a very effective way to get users to take the correct path, through the use of floor level signage in the form of colour coding.

Understanding Colours

Different colours have different meaning and understanding the different meanings can help immensely. Blue for example is generally seen as quite a relaxing colour and a colour such as red as a colour which gets people’s blood pulsating more (hence the usage of red for danger and warning signs). A book such as “Colour, Messages and Meanings” by Leatrice Elseman (just look on Amazon) can be a good starting point to read more. Colours can help a user to “connect emotionally to a place” (Gibson, 2009).

Colours you use need also to contrast correctly with backgrounds and this includes indoors and outdoors and importantly, light needs to be included in the equation. A sign indoors which is poorly lit can become quite ineffective. The contrast of any textual content, the background and the lighting all need to be considered when using signage. The country and typical climatic conditions add another layer to the dynamics of outdoor signage and colours. In a location where the weather is often inclement and dark or snows often, bright signage or colour markings can help. They need to be seen. In a location on the other hand, such as Hawaii, the need for brighter colours in respect of weather as a consideration, is negated.

Colours such as “green and purple can have a stabilizing effect; red can create excitement; and yellow can encourage feelings of restfulness” (Read, 2003). The use of colours as visual cues is a proven way to enhance wayfinding efficiency in built environments.

Other Considerations

Travel spaces should not rely entirely on colour-coding as a wayfinding and it is unrealistic to do so and certainly not suitable or effective for people who suffer from colour blindness. Colour should act as an aid. It is also important to choose and use colours which are distinctive and clear. It is not good for example to differentiate different floors of a hotel when using colour coding, by using more than one shade of the same colour. Use distinctive colours such as one red, green, blue and black floor.

Branding is almost always an important consideration throughout the process and a client’s needs from a branding point of view, have to be factored in. Wayfinding design and planning is not a perfect art and a client’s needs simply have to be met. You can try and use the gentle art of persuasion to explain any considerations from a user and wayfinding efficiency point of view, but you might very well have to accept brand considerations and work around this.

Map

Colour coding a map.

References

Cater.C. and Cloke.P. (2007) Bodies in Action: The Performativity of Adventure Tourism. Anthropology Today, Vol. 23, No. 6 (Dec., 2007).

Foucault, M., Sheridan, A., 1991. Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. Penguin books, London [etc.].

Gibson.D. (2009), The Wayfinding Handbook: Information Design for Public Places. Princeton Architectural Press.

Read,M. (2003), Use of Color in Child Care Environments: Application of Color for Wayfinding and Space Definition in Alabama Child Care Environments. Early Childhood Education Journal, Vol. 30, No. 4, Summer 2003.

Urry and Larsen (2011), The Tourist Gaze 3.0, Sage Pulications Ltd.

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2 thoughts on “Using Colours in Wayfinding and Navigation”

  1. Dr GS Chowdhary says:

    I would request for international colour coded wayfinding system information for hospitals.
    This would help ppl reach from the ER to say the lab services or the operation room or say the hospital cafeteria.

  2. John Barberi says:

    Interesting article. Thank you for sharing this information on the importance of color in wayfinding. We have a cloud-based wayfinding software that we are presently marketing to large campuses of any type and I found this information useful to make sure we consider color as an important factor in directing our client’s visitors.

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