Pathways for Wayfinding Support
What you can do solo vs. when to bring in a consultant
When it comes to wayfinding, not all communities are created equal, and 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 wayfinding programs to support enjoyable experiences. However, not knowing where to begin, what you can accomplish on your own and when to bring in some outside help can make anyone feel…well…lost.
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, if not better, from the physical environment. 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.
At a functional level, it tells people where the journey starts and ends, directs them to various attractions and amenities, and encourages 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 business 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.
The road less traveled
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. True wayfinding leverages various verbal and visual elements, including space, 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.
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 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 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 local government, schools, chamber of commerce and economic development organizations, as well as 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 your WHY. Before creating a new wayfinding program, you and your steering committee should be able to articulate your community’s purpose. Your purpose answers one simple question: Why do we exist? It’s an authentic and emotional brand statement that describes the value your community delivers to key constituents.
You might be thinking, “Why is this important for wayfinding?” A clearly defined purpose is a helpful decision-making tool, providing you with a framework for evaluating new initiatives and designing experiences that engage your target audiences. As a critical part of the experience you deliver, a wayfinding system should align with your purpose, making people feel safe and drawing them to areas that enhance community pride and reinforce your brand promise.
- Identify your 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. 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.
With budgets, resources and staff spread thin these days, we know there is pressure to get as much done on your own as possible. However, if your community is particularly large or complex, we highly recommend seeking the help of an experienced consultancy. 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 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.
- Elevating your brand. There’s no point in creating a signage system that looks just like the community’s 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 brand story 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.
Finding the right balance
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.
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 strategy and design that makes your place shine from beginning to end.
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