Found: How Wayfinding Trumps signage

Is signage overused in healthcare facilities?  While some is certainly needed, the reliance on it as a wayfinding strategy is a problem for many institutions. Don’t even get me started on the “tape on the floor” issue.   Patients travel long distances, often navigating several floors or changes of direction, even moving from one building to another as they attempt to reach their destination. Many of these patients are already in poor health or elderly, making it a confusing and oppressive journey.  The problem is compounded for the low English proficiency population (LEP), who may not be able to read or fully comprehend signage. 

I have been thinking a lot about how architecture can play a role in creating more intuitive spaces that rely less on signage.  Many of these strategies are rooted in behavioral research and involve cueing and other psychological devices. 

Create enriched environments: 
Reinforcing a location through a theme, artwork, color palette, floor texture, music, even aromas, helps users to cognitively organize the area into a “place.” Just this simple act can create the perception of less distance to travel and reduce confusion related to having to pass through several different areas to reach a final destination.  As different people resonate more strongly to each type of behavioral cue, providing multiple cues reinforces a message and also reaches out to the greatest number of users. Incorporating natural light, plants and water features provides therapeutic effects that enhance the wayfinding measures. 

Put your urban design skills to work: 
Just like good city planning involves creating landmarks, districts and hubs, so does good institutional planning.  This is old Kevin Lynch stuff, perhaps so first-year-architecture-school obvious that we forget about it.  Providing major destination points that are visible from a distance helps users to know they are headed in the right direction.  Hubs should be designed around major vertical circulation elements and include multistory space when possible.  Doing this allows users to see their destination from the hub, which makes getting there less confusing.  Hubs also create great opportunities to create resting places.  Patients who have trouble navigating long distances need to stop often along the way.  Their stopping point should not create a break in their cognitive map, but instead occur within it.   

Avoid information overload: 
When designing, think about paths of travel and decision points- the times when a user needs to choose a direction or action.  Effective design minimizes decision points and links them for the most part with hub locations.  The fewer decision points there are in a facility, the simpler the cognitive map will be and the easier the wayfinding.  From the point of arrival on the site, information should unfold on an as-needed basis.  In her excellent article, Wayfinding: Design for Understanding, Barbara J. Huelat discusses the “airport model” for signage, stressing that providing users with more information that they need at decision points creates confusion not clarity.  This progressive disclosure simplifies the cognitive map as well.  While we want to avoid visual overload, don’t forget about auditory over-stimulation.  Be careful to design acoustically sensitive spaces that mask and absorb noise.  Loud spaces are very disorienting to someone who needs to concentrate or collect their thoughts. 

Ultimately, wayfinding is about promoting understanding and access to an environment.  The best way to do that is to think about the user’s travel path as a journey.  When you can see where you’re going, you know how to get there.