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8 Common Mistakes Made when Designing a Wayfinding System

As a wayfinding auditor, I am constantly seeing many of the same mistakes applied time and time again. It is a little like the 80/20 rule whereby 20% of the problems are happening 80% of the time and so I thought that I would share with you some of the most common mistakes I see made. Importantly also for many of you, most of these issues are inexpensive and quick to solve, important because I appreciate how budgetary and time constraints and internal politics can affect the management of many wayfinding systems. So let us get started.

Placement and Hidden Signage

Hidden sign
Hidden signage – See the speed sign behind?

The sign above, from a local hospital, shows a great example of a sign which intends to tell drivers to keep to a 15 miles per hour speed limit, but the sign is not so easy for drivers to actually see, given that it is hidden from certain angles as drivers approach. The fact that there are competing signs and far more to read than one could possibly could in the approaching drive, is another issue we will tackle more below.


Bretonside in Plymouth

Clustering can easily happen given the need to try and accommodate all stakeholders involved in the environment you are managing the wayfinding for. The need, for example, to have directional signs, security and safety information, other user information and then advertising signage to satisfy commercial needs, means that wayfinding information can often be fighting for space with all other information. The solution to solving this over-information load is not always a simple one, but there are solutions.

One technique to solve this issue is to group specific types of signs together in specific areas. Put the security signs all together in one location, for example, and place the directional signage in another spot (still taking care of course to ensure that the signs are at the correct decision points). Try also to remove any redundant signs. I appreciate that internal politics, such as in hospitals, can sometimes mean that it is very hard to remove such signs without difficulty.

Illegible Writing on Signs

Illegible sign

Impossible to read signage

It is quite surprising how many signs have text on them which you would need a magnifying glass to read it with. Similarly, it is amazing how easily the users are forgotten as the intended recipients of the information. A sign, for example, which is designed for drivers and hence people moving at say 30 mph, should be designed differently from those signs aimed at walkers. You might note, as you become aware of this problem and begin to look at signage in your local area, that many signs designed for drivers are all but impossible to read.

Wayfinding System which is not Maintained

Damaged direction board

A wayfinding system once created, is now a system which is organic, that is, it is one which grows and evolves and which needs constant monitoring and management. It is a very common situation to see, as a wayfinding auditor, signs and wayfinding aids that are neglected and left unrepaired or unreplaced. Signs which have become redundant and should be removed and signage which is old and redundant also needs to be removed, something which can be as important as focusing on adding new signage. In order to avoid mis-information and the possibility of causing users stress, confusion and a range of other emotions, you need to manage this whole process and this process needs to be done methodologically. Have the signs checked monthly, have a database and set reminders for signage checks.

Cluttered and Badly Designed Signs

Cluttered sign in Wales

The sign above from the University Hospital of Wales just after one of the main entrances by road, provides us with an excellent example of how not to create signage. At least five individual errors exist on the one sign, particularly when you consider that this sign is aimed at drivers (hence the mention of car parks in the sign).

  • Can you imagine driving and being in any way able to read the lettering from the road.
  • Or read that amount of information as you drive by and in a few seconds.
  • The ‘This is a Smokefree Site’ makes little sense in terms of the English language, perhaps an NHS error in branding.
  • Smokers information is redundant information and should never be used for signage for drivers.
  • Text such as “Please see signs for further details and instructions” on what is already a sign, makes little sense.

There is little that is correct about this signage and the parking fees and information should be placed close to the pay units. Such a sign is problematic, because it is poorly designed, in the wrong location, includes redundant information and is simply confusing.

Loose signage

Attention should also be given to temporary signage in the same manner one should check permanent signage.

Mis-Use of Icons and Symbols

Multiple signage errors

Many symbols and icons which are used on signage are globally recognised and thus act as a wonderful way of communicating information to users, bypassing sometimes otherwise problematic cultural and language barriers. One icon which is used in many countries globally and which is thus recognised quite easily, no matter where you are driving, is the ‘Parking’ symbol. Have you ever before though seen a yellow parking symbol like in the image above from the hospital? A change of colour or change of meaning away from the globally understood norms of that given symbol can create confusion and potentially stress. In the case above, the driving in a new, unfamiliar environment and trying to find a parking space can be stressful enough. This does not factor in the stress which might already be associated with the need for visiting the hospital to start with. Creating signage which confuses rather than aids users is a recipe for creating dissatisfied users.

Contradictory messages

Decision Points in the Wrong Places

Decision points are a vital consideration for the planning of an efficient wayfinding system and need to be planned and considered carefully. There is no point, for example, in having a sign to direct someone somewhere, if by the time they would otherwise have reached that information, they have already gone in a different direction. Information which provides the user with directional information should be placed at or just before the point at which they are likely to need to have to make their route decisions.

Not Using Space Effectively

Use of spatial design

Directing people using space and design.

Wayfinding is a subject area which is much more than just signs! The use of space, people. olfactory measures and many other guidance mechanisms are all important in any wayfinding strategy. Space can be highly effective for guiding people and without the need sometimes for all but very limited signage, if any is needed at all. Open spaces and using space, such as a path which appears to guide users to a central point or towards a clearly visible landmark, is an invaluable tool for the wayfinding designer. Ignoring the use of space can be a mistake and is often a shortfall of some wayfinding systems.

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