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Wayfinding – that’s just signs isn’t it?

Sian Kelly, the Chairman of the Sign Design Society (SDS) and a director of The Velvet Principle, a wayfinding and experiential graphic design consultancy, argues that when it comes to wayfinding, signs aren’t the only solution.

I think it’s fair to say that wayfinding as a term, is pretty much established within the property development lexicon.  Which is obviously a good thing for those who earn their living in this field.

But, if I got a pound for every time I’ve mentioned wayfinding at a property event, or in discussions about a development, and the conversation has immediately turned to signage … well I’d certainly be able to splash out on a decent lunch.

Yes signs might be an outcome, but they are one of several tools that a wayfinding consultant might consider to help people orient and find their way round. One tool in an arsenal that includes:

  • Architectural features and design,
  • Lighting
  • Landscaping
  • Sight Lines
  • People
  • Public art and landmarks
  • Digital apps andthe web

Some might argue that a sign is the tool of last resort, deployed when all other avenues have been exhausted.  This is a bit too simplistic. Signs might perform a functional role in helping people navigate, but they also increase people’s understanding of what else is available, stimulate curiosity, encourage exploration and help contribute to our enjoyment of place. A skilled wayfinding designer will use the sign form and content to express the personality of the brand and contribute to the staging of an experience.

So although we might have come along way in generating awareness for the discipline, we’ve still got work to do in communicating what constitutes a wayfinding scheme and what consultants do.  In particular we need to establish a clearer understanding of the added value that a wayfinding consultant will deliver compared with, for example, a branding/marketing agency or sign company.

Yes a brand agency should be able to design some attractive signs and a sign company will be able to follow a brief to manufacture and install a scheme. But the end deliverable is likely to be just that – signs, rather than an integrated, user centred wayfinding solution that uses a range of features and mechanisms to ensure guidance is available where it’s needed.

A successful wayfinding scheme requires a multidisciplinary skillset – a blending of analysis, strategy development, collaborative working, design thinking and creative skills in product design, information design and graphics. What you get from a suitability qualified and experienced wayfinding consultant is the ability to:

  • Understand the cognitive processes involved in navigation.
  • Analyse the spatial arrangement to identify the inherent wayfinding cues and where additional interventions are needed.
  • Work as part of wider design team to improve the legibility of a place and minimise the need for signs.
  • Where needed, design sign forms, that fit the context or add character.
  • Create or translate guidelines to communicate the personality of the brand.
  • Design information that can be understood and acted on by a wide range of visitor personas.
  • Understand materials and production processes to ensure delivery of a high quality product.

The breadth of the skills required account for why there are specialist wayfinding consultancies in the first place.  Dig deeper, and you’ll discover that the senior management have often worked in the field for many years, developing and honing their expertise and knowledge.

Just about anyone can design a sign.  The art in wayfinding is in identifying when a sign is needed, where it should be placed, what the content should be, designing the information to maximise legibility and a sign form that fits the context. So no … wayfinding involves so much more than signs!

For further information on the Sign Design Society, visit: www.signdesignsociety.co.uk/

For further information on The Velvet Principle, visit: www.thevelvetprinciple.com

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