Size Doesn’t Matter (in Wayfinding)

How even small spaces benefit from smart wayfinding

In the age of Google Maps, finding your way can seem as simple as picking up your phone. But navigating the world often requires more low-tech solutions, especially when you get to where you’re going. That’s where wayfinding comes in. Whether you’re walking through a local park, finding a doctor’s office in a hospital or searching for parking lots near a hot spot – wayfinding is an art form that takes into consideration the audience, the place, and the experience you want them to have.

Big municipalities or small intimate venues alike – wayfinding impacts the visitor experience regardless of the type or size of the place. Our clients run the gamut in geographic footprint and people traffic, particularly when it comes to communities. Time and again, we’ve seen how even towns that span just a few city blocks can benefit from wayfinding.

The Right Wayfinding Defines You

Ever been to a National Park? You were probably greeted by a large sign at the entrance, maybe an arch over the road or a sign bearing the name and logo. This is where visitors stop to take a picture standing next to the sign to say, “Look! I was there!” Visitors often photograph these signs and for good reason: they signify you’ve arrived. We call these gateways and it’s especially important for communities, parks and other areas where the borders are not clearly defined. Even if your community isn’t packed with visitor destinations, these placemaking elements create a gateway – both physically and emotionally – for your brand. It identifies where you are (geographically speaking), while reinforcing your brand to spark a feeling or create an intentional association with the place.

Consistent Wayfinding Makes You More Livable

Working hand-in-hand with wayfinding and signage is reinforcing your brand throughout your space. This reassures people that they are in the right location and serves as a gentle brand reminder at key moments in their journey. Imagine visiting a university: you park your car in a lot that’s clearly branded. Once on campus, you wander to the right building thanks to signage that guides you. Along the way, you know you’ve arrived and feel comfortable. Now, imagine if each sign looked different. If some signs were old and falling apart, while others were new and cared-for. Or if some signs were modern and colorful and others were neutral and more traditional. It’s confusing and you may wonder if you’ve entered a different place or you’ve lost your way. Consistency matters – whether it’s a big city or a quaint campus.

Sign standards help establish this consistency, so that as your place evolves, your signage can too (without compromising the rest of your sign system). Think of the signage on city-owned buildings or green spaces – it demonstrates that the city cares and takes pride in what it offers. It leaves a lasting impression on not only visitors but on residents too.

Not Everyone Knows Where They’re Going

We often hear smaller communities say, “we’re small, people will figure it out” or “everybody already knows where they’re going.” In addition to reinforcing your brand and providing a consistent experience, wayfinding and signage can also draw attention to unique areas or highlight hidden gems. For example, we worked with a rather small town that was experiencing increased visitor traffic due to a new IKEA opening up. In addition to newly built suburban shopping areas, the city also had a charming part of town that only locals knew about. Our challenge became looking for ways to draw attention to this other part of town, considering the type of visitor, their mindset and how to open up avenues to capture their attention. It’s more than simply “putting up signs”; it requires broader considerations, planning, and a careful strategy to bring it all together.

Understanding the Balance

Wayfinding overcomes many of the common issues that communities face – whatever their size – while also playing an important role in branding and user experience. This gets to my final point: wayfinding presents layers of opportunity. No one ever says, “you need more signs.” Every wayfinding program should start with an analysis of the current situation: Who are your audiences? What type of foot or motor traffic do you have? What’s the nature of your space? Look at the place from the visitor’s point of view: what’s the minimum wayfinding tools that someone would need to comfortably navigate through a space? How do I use these tools to reinforce my brand and send a message to my audience?

Understanding scale is important and overcomes the temptation to put signage everywhere. It also keeps costs in-check. You have to be creative with the space you have – not overwhelm it. Signs don’t have to be elaborate, but they can still have character and branding that breathe new life into your place.

Wondering if wayfinding can up your game? Talk with a wayfinding strategist to learn about your opportunities and options.

Design Consultant


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