What’s In A Name?

A successful nomenclature system is step one of a sign program, and it requires looking through the audience lens.


Where are you now—and where are you going? What do you call this place, that building, the district over there, a room across the hall? What’s the name?

“Names are so much a part of our daily lives that we tend to use them without thinking. They’re just there – part of our world – but in reality, successful naming is intentional and it’s often the most overlooked aspect of a sign program.”

Formally, naming is referred to as nomenclature, and it’s how we identify areas, buildings, streets, landmarks and other spaces. Nomenclature can be emotional; it can be systematic. Names might be rooted in history, or purely functional – it all depends on the place and its purpose.

We might not realize the impact nomenclature has on the way we experience places because names that “work” feel natural and endure. But when consistent nomenclature is inconsistent or altogether missing, we struggle with directions and can’t easily find the answers we’re looking for, which is frustrating and sometimes anxiety-producing. Knowing what to call a place gives us confidence to navigate our way and peace of mind, resulting in a better overall experience.

Culturally, naming is something we do as a society to identify, organize, relate, and communicate. When a baby is born, one of the first things we want to know is, “What did you name her?” When we organize a messy office by labeling files, we then can find what we are looking for (and so can others). If we plan a vacation, we talk about nomenclature (place names) before wayfinding (how to get there).

Developing nomenclature is often the first step of a wayfinding system, preceding a sign program. When you think about it, this is a logical order: we have to know what to call “it” before we can show people how to get there.

While it often feels like an extra step, inconsistent or ineffective nomenclature can disrupt an entire wayfinding system. Here are some practical considerations on why it works…and when it doesn’t.

When Nomenclature Works

Simply put, nomenclature is naming. But when it comes to wayfinding, nomenclature is a little more complex; it’s a system of identifying a destination, whether that’s specific (like a doctor’s office) or general (like a city district). Successful nomenclature is based on a functional methodology that ensures consistency and clarity.

“Successful nomenclature is based on a functional methodology…”

What’s the point of nomenclature, aside from simply knowing what to call a place? Nomenclature directly impacts people’s experiences, and when done effectively, naming should:

  • Manage stress and increase confidence. They know where they are now and where to go next.
  • Improve organization. They feel more comfortable if naming conventions make sense and signs reflect a plan that’s logical, making it easy to get where they want to go.
  • Create connections. These connections can be historical or emotional—there’s pride and attachment with nomenclature in certain places, such as neighborhoods, stadiums and institutions.
  • Defines a purpose. Naming helps people understand what they can do, see and experience at a place.
  • Connects the dots. Logical naming guides people along their way. You feel organized, confident and on task, like you’re getting the full experience.
When Nomenclature Fails

Naming a place is an art and science with a range of variables that impact a decision – buildings can evolve in their function or use, or donors and sponsors change, etc. There are practical considerations too, such as the length of a name, complicated spelling and confusing abbreviations. Also, we know that nomenclature can bring about significant change that impacts lots of people. That includes donors, visitors, staff and guests who have never experienced a place before.

The top challenges we face when instituting an effective nomenclature program include:

  • Ambiguous names. Sometimes the name people use exists simply because that’s what they’ve always called it. But is that the most practical option? Could they be better served if a place was named differently? In some cases, it makes sense to name a place what it is.
  • Donor changes. A donor’s name on a building might become part of the fabric of a place. When the donor changes, how does the name get treated? Does the name change or stay the same, even with the advent of new financial support? Beyond that, donor names simply do not fit on directional signs and it can be difficult to manage a donor’s expectations on where and how their names are represented
  • Nicknames. Staff or frequent visitors of a place often refer to a building or wing by a name that most people don’t know. Shortened and abbreviated names may be necessary in some cases to help fit the important content on a sign, but naming conventions are largely for those who don’t know their way – not for the regulars or insiders.
  • Frequent name changes. Staff changes, donor changes—change is generally not a good thing in a nomenclature system. It’s confusing for people and can negatively impact their experience.
  • Emotional attachment. There’s a lot of brand equity and attachment to some names. When a name has a long history or is synonymous with its good reputation, a name change can cause confusion or take time for the public to adopt.

Where we see nomenclature go wrong is when there is a lack of buy-in among stakeholders. There can be disagreement about whether an existing name should stay or go. In general, nomenclature is one of the most commonly overlooked aspects of executing a sign program. So perhaps the biggest problem is that there is a lack of a naming system in the first place.

The good news is, a successful nomenclature system can be developed and stewarded when we think about it through the audience lens and recognize that the names we assign to places and experiences are about the user’s experience (and not our own personal preferences).

“…a successful nomenclature system can be developed and stewarded when we think about it through the audience lens and recognize that the names we assign to places and experiences are about the user’s experience (and not our own personal preferences).”

Successful Naming — It’s All About People

Before any nomenclature can be assigned, the first consideration is your audience. It’s about the people—helping them arrive to destinations, guiding them through the experience they want or expect.

So, who are these people? Who is your audience? What type of experience do you want them to have, and what guidance will they require to realize that? Here are some questions to considers to understand what your audience cares about and what they need as they make their way around or through a destination:

  • Where are they going? Someplace specific, like a certain hospital room? Or, a general location, like a neighborhood within a city?
  • How will they get there? We’re talking mainly about their mindset during the experience. Are they in a hurry to arrive at the destination? Will they take time to wander, explore, poke around? Is a scenic route a good thing—or a frustrating detour? For example, if you were looking for the oncology department at a hospital, you would not want to wander into the neonatal intensive care unit. But, you might be pleasantly surprised to discover a new shop on your way to a museum.
  • What do they care about? Again, put yourself in the shoes of your audience. What do they need to see on signage to get the experience they are seeking? For example, on a college campus you might want to put a donor’s name on a building sign, but a visitor or a new student also needs to know the function of the building to understand that they’re in the right place. Visitors are more interested in the function of the building than who paid for it.
Rules for the Road: Drive An Effective Naming Process

We talked about the characteristics that successful nomenclature systems share. They give people confidence and guide them where they want to go. They help people understand where they are now, and where to go next. They establish a sense of place and define an experience.

Here are some specific considerations to think about as nomenclature is developed and executed.

  • Be consistent. Visitors need to be able to connect the dots so they can easily find their way to a place, but that’s difficult to do without consistent naming across signage.
  • Implement symbols. Symbols are a universal language for nomenclature. They’re easily recognizable – for domestic and foreign visitors – and they can communicate a lot simply and clearly without taking up much space on a sign.
  • In high-stress environments—stick to the basics. Think baggage claim, airport terminals, hospital wings with the name of the department displayed prominently. Laymen’s terms go a long way in ushering people through your place with ease.
  • Formal or casual? Names must belong. Consider the environment and tone of the place. Nomenclature should align with the experience.
  • Pay attention to hierarchy. (see Signage Rules! section)

Naming connects people to places and is instrumental in creating the ideal experience for your audience.

There’s a defined process for creating successful nomenclature that, when executed, results in a naming system that resonates with your audience.

Signage Rules!

What exactly should be included on a sign?

This is a question we often address during the nomenclature process. The reality is, you can only fit so much text on a sign. Every word counts. Here are some guidelines we follow to make sure the naming on signs is clear and concise.

Think like a visitor.

There is chronology in the way people navigate the world. For example, on a college campus, we find a building first and then a classroom inside. Some common names—like Admissions Office—belong on the front of a building. But other departments within admissions might not require front door labeling. First-time visitors will easily find the Admissions Office, but they might not understand what the Smith Building is.

Honor rules and regulations.

Vehicular signs are limited to a certain number of characters. Some areas restrict who can be named on signs or do not allow logos. There might be restrictions related to sign size or shape. And, there are rules for interior signs, too. Some signs might require two languages or braille symbols.

Before you go long…

Complicated names that are long tend to be more difficult for people to read (and remember). Plus, a long name might not fit on a sign. Brevity is an advantage.


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