Developing a Wayfinding Program:What you can do for yourself (and when to bring in a wayfinding consultant)

University Circle Wayfinding

You don’t have to be an expert to understand good wayfinding versus bad. Just think back to the last time you got turned around or got lost navigating your way through a new place. It’s frustrating to say the least and you don’t want to leave your visitors feeling the same way. 

Successful communities invest significant time and resources in creating well-planned, attractive wayfinding programs. These are specifically designed to create enjoyable experiences for their visitors. However, knowing everything from where to begin to what you can accomplish on your own–  and when to bring in some outside help can make anyone feel…well…lost.

Consumer expectations for user experience are already high.

With an endless amount of smart products, mobile applications, and websites available at our fingertips, consumers’ expectations for user experience are at an all-time high. The digitization of nearly everything has made people ultra-sensitive to any gaps that stand between them and the information they are looking for. If pages aren’t loading quickly or products are too hard to find, you can be sure that they’ve moved on to the next brand that can support their needs.

While you can thank (or blame) technology for your audience’s heightened demands, you need to realize that their expectations spill over into the physical realm too. Just as people want seamless, easy-to-navigate online experiences, they expect the exact same, from their physical environment. 

Think of it this way: You only have a minute or less to make a good impression, which is exactly why good wayfinding is essential to any place-based brand. 

So what does that mean for your place? 

  1. At a functional level, you need to teach people where the journey starts and ends, 
  2. You need to direct them to various attractions and amenities, and 
  3. You need to encourage them to take certain actions depending on where they are. 

We like to think of wayfinding as the map that helps people discover and explore every treasure your community has to offer. And when it’s done really well, this map supports your placemaking objectives by emphasizing everything that makes your environment unique, motivating people to stay longer, visit again and share positive memories. A place is only as good as the stories that are told about it, and your wayfinding can make a huge difference. 

Quality over quantity when it comes to wayfinding signage

It is pretty easy to tell when a community or city has a wayfinding problem, but figuring out what to do about it is where things can get a little disorienting. All too often, we see communities jump right into putting up more signage or redesigning old ones, but that’s when we, as wayfinding consultants, start waving our CAUTION flag. 

Contrary to popular belief, adding more signs can exacerbate this issue, making people more confused about where to go and what to do. We actually find that good wayfinding employs as few signs as possible. The real problem may have less to do with your signs and more to do with the overall experience you’re offering. It can be tempting to resolve the issue as quickly as possible, but we encourage you to pump the brakes before hiring a designer or doing the work yourself.

So why aren’t your signs working? Signage is only one part of a cohesive wayfinding program. True wayfinding leverages various verbal and visual elements, including context, directions, architecture, landscaping, lighting, branding and more, to connect people to your place and enhance your brand. 

While your wayfinding challenges probably don’t require a comprehensive redesign of all of these components, unless you’re undergoing a major construction project, it’s important to examine your audience’s needs and overall brand experience before implementing any new strategies or processes. Sure, taking this route may take a little bit longer than anticipated, but it’s the most worthwhile path for developing a solution that suits your environment. 

What YOU can do today to develop your wayfinding program

If you have discovered major gaps in your visitor experience, we understand the urge to get started on a solution. While we recommend working with a consultant when you’re ready to develop a new wayfinding program, you know your place best, and no one can compete with your domain knowledge and rapport. Here are a few things you can do on your own to save some much needed time and money down the road.

  • Engage your stakeholders. A community wayfinding project shouldn’t be tackled within the confines of your department. In addition to anyone who has worked on the community’s brand, such as your marketing team or agency, we highly recommend bringing together a steering committee made up of people who are on your front lines talking with visitors and other constituents. This may include officials from your community’s most popular destinations, local schools, chamber of commerce, and economic development organizations, as well as businesses, landlords, and active residents. Not only can they help you identify issues and inform decisions, but having them engaged early on will pay off when you implement the new program, building support in community ambassadors.
  • Know what you need signage to do.  Signage has a lot of different purposes. It  can be used to welcome, to guide and direct, to announce and identify, as well as to inform and educate. Signage and wayfinding needs are different for every place. Perhaps people struggle to find parking, or they don’t know when they have arrived to their destination, or you want to tell a really great story about a piece of art. You may need one solution, or all the above but knowing what you need signage and wayfinding to do will help you prioritize your efforts.
  • Identify your wayfinding goals. Typically, many communities start this process by saying they want their wayfinding to simply “help people find us,” which is a very realistic and achievable goal. But beyond simply finding you, what does success look like? Are there certain attractions or amenities you want them to see, or actions you want them to take? How should they feel about your community when they leave? What do you want them to say? It’s important to think about the entire visitor experience, from arrival to departure and all of the important stops in between, when considering your wayfinding program objectives.
  • Audit your wayfinding program. While a wayfinding consultant will have diagnostic tools and the know-how to help identify problem areas, you can kick-start the process by taking inventory of the current wayfinding signs and elements so you can start to identify what’s working well and where information may be confusing. Your audit can include photos, an organized excel file or even just a written list of everything you have. Trust us when we say your wayfinding consultants will find this to be extremely valuable when kicking off the project.
  • Survey your audience. You can make pretty educated assumptions about where your wayfinding issues exist, but there’s nothing more valuable than direct feedback from your users. Whether you do this through online surveys or in-person focus groups, ask them about the complexity of navigating to and from destinations within your place, their awareness of important attractions, and their overall experience. This is probably one of the most essential things you can do before developing a new wayfinding plan. 

When to hire someone with wayfinding experience

With budgets, resources and staff spread thin these days, we know there is pressure to get as much done by yourself as possible. However, if your community is particularly large or complex, we highly recommend seeking the help of an experienced wayfinding consultant. Good wayfinding is a combination of art and science, leveraging human behaviors, context, and design to help people navigate their way through physical environments. While your experience will be an invaluable part of the process, a wayfinding consultant is armed with the necessary research and skills to create a program that aligns with your objectives and visitors’ navigation needs. 

Here are some ways a wayfinding consultant can relieve some of the burden while maximizing the impact of your new wayfinding program:

  • Developing the strategy. A new project should always begin with discovery work that involves exploring the ins and outs of your brand and your place. At Guide Studio, we also go through an exercise in which we put ourselves into your visitors’ shoes to uncover everything they need to understand and navigate your physical environment.

    Once this intel is gathered and assembled, the consultant can develop the plan that maps out a comprehensive system of directional, regulatory and identification signs, as well as the information needed from the start of the journey through to the finish. It’s also important to consider a variety of physical, environmental and social factors that can influence the experience of your place, including hazards people should avoid, amenities and attractions that should be highlighted, and the tools your community has to support the ideal user experience. Most importantly, a good wayfinding plan will save time and money by only developing signs that present the right message, at the right time, in the right place — not all over the place.
  • Elevating your brand. There’s no point in creating a signage system that looks just like the community next door – how will people even know when they’ve crossed border lines? While some elements have to follow regulatory standards, the best sign programs have a bit more spark, elements that speak to your image and character and creative ways to bring the history, culture and personality of your place to life. People shouldn’t leave your place without being able to tell their friends what makes you different, and a good consultancy will be able to pull your brand qualities into the messaging and design.
  • Establishing standards. Once the wayfinding strategy and design is complete, your consultant can help you document the details, choices and rationale that led to your new wayfinding program. While this may seem like an unnecessary administrative hassle, these sign standards can help you communicate your decisions back to stakeholders who can make or break the continuity and success of your program.

    Additionally, these standards can help you maintain consistency throughout your place, ensuring future designs regarding infrastructure and navigation align with the experience you’ve worked so hard to create, independent of changes in personnel.
  • Implementation and installation. Finally, it’s time to prepare for the big reveal of your new wayfinding and signage program! This is one of the most rewarding stages of the project, but it can also get a little crazy with tight deadlines and managing a variety of contractors to install your new signs. This is not the time to take any shortcuts, and a consultant can oversee implementation, ensuring the designs translate into the high quality, effective wayfinding program you’re expecting. 

Every community wants to see themselves at the top of their residents’, visitors’ and businesses’ lists, but there’s no point in investing dollars in areas like infrastructure, events or marketing if these audiences can’t find ways to enjoy everything you have to offer. If you’ve discovered a wayfinding problem, it’s probably time to take off the rose-colored shades and address your user experience with a more skeptical eye. Trust us, your visitors are already doing the same. 

Consultants and In-house teams need to work together

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach for building a new wayfinding program, there are ways to take advantage of both in-house and external resources to develop a solution that suits your needs (and budget). Ideally, it’s a partnership: your team serves up the institutional knowledge required to understand the current state of your community and rally key stakeholders, and a consultant provides the skills and expertise to create a comprehensive plan. No consultant can compete with your history and experience, but a good one can leverage it to provide a plan and design that makes your place shine from beginning to end.