How to develop a community signage and wayfinding plan

University Circle Wayfinding

When it comes to signage and wayfinding, you don’t have to be an expert to judge the good versus the bad. Just think back to the last time you got turned around or 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-designed, cohesive signage and wayfinding programs to support enjoyable experiences. However, knowing everything from where to begin, what you can accomplish on your own, and when to bring in some outside help can make anyone feel…well…lost. 

Great Expectations

With an endless amount of smart products, mobile applications, and websites available at our fingertips, expectations for user experience are at an all-time high. The digitization of nearly everything has made people ultra-sensitive to any gaps between them and the information they seek. If pages aren’t loading quickly or products are too hard to find, you can be sure 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 must realize that their expectations also spill over into the physical realm. Just as people want seamless, easy-to-navigate online experiences, they expect the exact same, if not better, from the physical environment. You only have a minute or less to make a good impression, which is exactly why good signage and wayfinding are essential to any place brand. 

“You only have a minute or less to make a good impression, which is exactly why good signage and wayfinding are essential to any place brand.” 

So what does this mean for your place?
  • At a functional level, signage and wayfinding tell people where the journey starts and ends.
  • It directs them to various attractions and amenities.
  • It encourages them to take certain actions depending on where they are. 

We like to think of it 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 economic development objectives by emphasizing everything that makes your place 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 signage and wayfinding can make a huge difference.

Quality over quantity when it comes to signs

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 many communities jump right into putting up more signage or redesigning old ones, but that’s when we, as wayfinding consultants, start waving our (imaginary) CAUTION flag. 

First off, adding more signs can exacerbate the 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.

Additionally, signage is only one part of a cohesive wayfinding program. Good wayfinding leverages various elements, including space, directions, architecture, landscaping, lighting, branding, and more, to connect people to your place and enhance your image. 

“Good wayfinding leverages various elements, including space, directions, architecture, landscaping, lighting, branding, and more, to connect people to your place and enhance your image.”

What you can do today to improve navigation and experience in your community.

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 signage and wayfinding plan, 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 a municipal department. We highly recommend bringing together a steering committee of people on your front lines who often engage with community members and visitors. This may include representatives from your schools, chamber of commerce, economic development organizations, realtors, 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 and wayfinding to do.  Signage has a lot of different purposes. It can be used to welcome, 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 at their destination, or you want to tell a really great story about a piece of art. You may need one solution or all of the above, but knowing what you need signage and wayfinding to do will help you prioritize your efforts.
  • Identify your goals. 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 experience. 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 signage and other visual 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 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 audiences. You can make pretty educated assumptions about where your navigational and experience 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, their awareness of important attractions, and their overall experience. This is probably one of the essential things you can do before developing a new signage and wayfinding plan. 
Why you should collaborate with a wayfinding consultant.

With budgets, resources, and staff spread thin these days, we know there is pressure to get as much done 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.

Here are some ways a consultant can relieve some of the burdens 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.
    Once this intel is gathered and assembled, the consultant can develop a plan that maps out a comprehensive system of directional, regulatory, and identification signs and 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.
  • Elevating your brand. There’s no point in creating a signage system that looks just like the sign program in the city next door. While community wayfinding signage has to follow regulatory standards, the best sign programs have a bit more spark, incorporating elements that bring your place’s history, culture, and personality to life. People shouldn’t leave without being able to tell their friends what makes your community 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 are 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 quality and visual consistency throughout the signage and wayfinding program’s lifespan. This will help ensure that future program implementation aligns with the experience you’ve worked so hard to create.
  • 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. 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.

“Good wayfinding is a combination of art and science, leveraging human behaviors, context, and design to help people navigate their way through physical environments.”

Every community wants to see itself at the top of its residents’, visitors’, and businesses’ lists. Still, 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 remove the rose-colored shades and address your user experience with a more skeptical eye. Trust us; your visitors are already doing the same.