Wayfinding 101: Effective Signs Point to Love

By Camille Leonard

Wayfinding 101: Effective Signs Point to Love

Smart wayfinding is a 24-7 tour guide and reliable method of communicating directions. With thoughtful consideration for how visitors arrive, your wayfinding system can also serve as the ultimate tourism ambassador for your destination. Read time: under 6 minutes

An effective wayfinding system is one of the best ways to show your visitors (and locals) some love. Making visitors feel welcome and at home when they’re staying in your community is a vital part of creating a positive perception of your destination. Being able to easily find attractions, key points of interest and parking allows visitors to enjoy a less stressful experience in your town. And when frontline personnel at area accommodations, restaurants and attractions lack the training to advise and direct your guests, wayfinding can serve as a tourism ambassador.

Defining Wayfinding Goals and Strategy

Wayfinding encompasses all of the ways in which people orient themselves in physical space and navigate from place to place. The basic process of wayfinding involves four stages:

  1. Orientation is the attempt to determine one’s location in relation to objects that may be nearby and how they relate to the desired destination.
  2. Route decision is the selection of a course of direction within the destination.
  3. Route monitoring is checking to make sure that the selected route is optimized.
  4. Destination recognition is when the destination is recognized.[1]

How can a Destination Marketing Organization (DMO) use the four stages of the wayfinding process to enhance the tourist experience? Destinations of different sizes should employ each process to fit their destination (every destination is different!). Marketing a destination can be thought of in several different ways: marketing a community as a whole, marketing a district or marketing a neighborhood. Each option approaches wayfinding differently, and each has a different method of arrival to the destination. Some arrive by mass transit terminal. Some arrive via roadway. Some arrive on foot. Your wayfinding efforts should reflect considerations for how a visitor arrives.

Orientation: Welcome! Glad You Are Here.

Greet your visitors with branded messages in airport, train and bus terminals. Welcome drivers with a gateway into your community created by monument signage, branded billboards, light pole banners, or urban art and sculpture. Let them know what to expect with a gateway monument that matches the experience of staying in your destination. Create a sense of place and carry that essence of your brand throughout your wayfinding system. The “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign is a classic and cherished example of an early effort to orient visitors that has lasted well beyond the explosive growth of the city. The chasing lights and neon promise excitement and entertainment. Replicas of the original 1951 sign have been erected in several locations and, in what was a stroke of marketing genius in the age of social media selfies, visitors can park and pose safely with the sign in the background in a protected and easily accessible area at the start of the famous Las Vegas Strip. Googling the term “selfie at Las Vegas sign” will return thousands of image results. These images clearly indicate how visitors feel about being in Vegas. On my first visit to Vegas, seeing the sign was high on my list of “must-dos.”

Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada

Orientation, in its broadest sense, begins at the entry to the destination, whether the destination is as large as a country or as small as a museum. “You are here” is the primary message of orientation.

Route Decision: Balancing Practicality and Brand Showcase

I have family in Atlanta, and when my aunt and uncle would move to a new neighborhood, the directions to their new home would take you past the prettiest homes and best neighborhood shops and restaurants. We eventually learned the quickest route, but their directions left us with a more favorable impression of their location. This experience planted the importance of the route decision strategy firmly in my mind. Route Decision in the wayfinding process is most commonly thought of as being created by the series of signs or markers guiding drivers or pedestrians to attractions, districts or neighborhoods. Balancing a combination of an expedient route with opportunities to lead visitors past iconic landmarks, through charming neighborhoods or inspiring vistas is part of a carefully thought out Route Decision process and an important part of telling your brand story. Directing traffic in a particular path can reinforce a trail, emphasize the importance of attractions or expose visitors to unique shopping and dining opportunities. Think of this purposeful path as a curated journey through your destination. For example, if leading a visitor around a corner one block before what might be thought of as the most "logical route" would have their route take them past two art galleries on the way to a museum, this effort would help reinforce the presence of arts in your community. Directional signs should be designed for the kinds of traffic using their information to navigate. Signs directing faster-moving traffic guide visitors to more general areas, such as a Downtown Business District, Historic District or Riverfront. The specific locations that might be listed are key sites for travelers, like Visitor Centers (Information) and Convention Centers. These signs are large, and the messages are brief. As route directions begin to lead travelers off busier main roads to slower side streets and pedestrian traffic, the level of readership changes. The destinations listed become more numerous and specific as the viewer is moving more slowly (probably by foot or bike at this point) and is much closer to the signs. Guiding pedestrians can include detailed map kiosks that cover the locations of specific attractions and recommended walking routes. Legibility is at the heart of all wayfinding design, but conveying a sense of place and supporting your brand essence is also important.

A Case Study for Designing Wayfinding

Many of Montgomery, Alabama's important historic attractions, convention and entertainment districts are located downtown. Interstates 65 and 85 intersect directly adjacent to downtown Montgomery and feeder service roads run parallel to both interstates with a series of one-way streets leading in and out of the busy capital city center, making downtown driving confusing for most out-of-towners. So, working with the Montgomery CVB and the City of Montgomery, we planned, designed and oversaw the fabrication of a system of directional signs leading visitors into and through curated routes throughout the downtown area. Navigating the many one-way streets while directing travelers quickly and scenically to their destination was challenging. Downtown Montgomery is highly walkable, but like many busy working districts, street parking can be limited. Visitors needed to be guided to ample public parking as well as to their desired destination.

City of Montgomery, Alabama signage for parking.

City of Montgomery, Alabama signage for parking.

The signage system we developed included a scalable format to accommodate all of the traffic patterns required and included the ability to add or edit the attractions listed as Montgomery’s downtown continues to grow and evolve.

Montgomery, AL wayfinding

Designs for scalable directional signage.

Formed in 1816, Montgomery, Alabama is one of America’s most important historic cities. Rich with history and a revitalized and growing downtown, Montgomery offers something for all visitors. Positioned as the Capital of Dreams, Montgomery’s brand is historical but also aspirational and modern, and the design of the wayfinding system reflects that diversity. Using highly legible typography and modern materials, the sign design features a flowing curve that relates graphically to the elements of Montgomery's Capital of Dreams campaign. The overall shape of the signs gives a nod to the traditional shape of the many historic markers found in downtown Montgomery. The signs also feature a pewter-like 3-dimensional plaque embossed with Montgomery’s logo mark and all that would require their own posts were installed on posts with a traditional shape. As part of the Wayfinding plan for Montgomery, gateway monuments were proposed using brand elements designed for the city. Although this phase has yet to be implemented, gateway signage was designed to function as sculpture as well as marking the entrance to the city.

City of Montgomery, Alabama proposed entrance sign.

City of Montgomery, Alabama proposed entry point sign.

Route Monitoring: User Experience in Action

Careful planning ensured that sign content was accurate and their locations were strategic. In an effort to prevent one-way traffic pattern confusion and minimize delays during a visitor’s drive, many hours were spent on the Route Monitoring process evaluating how visitors entered downtown Montgomery from all directions. Pedestrian routes, which might be different, were checked for accuracy and scenic nature. Detailed planning maps outlined the position and content of each sign prior to fabrication and installation. Wayfinding’s purpose in a tourist destination is to lead the visitor to happiness. So, as restaurants and attractions are added, Route Monitoring continues.

City of Montgomery, Alabama signage.

City of Montgomery, Alabama signage.

Destination Recognition

What do destination marketing professionals and wayfinding systems have in common? When they’re on task, they effectively share information, guide visitors and showcase attributes of their community. Effective wayfinding is like a series of welcome mats—visitors should know the community is ready to receive them as guests. Wayfinding also reminds locals of all there is to do in their own city and helps when the local is approached for directions. Think of your wayfinding as a 24-7 tour guide and ambassador. Work with community partners, like city government and the transportation department, in an ongoing effort to ensure your signage presents the best user experience possible, and your visitors will love you! In Wayfinding 102, we explore destination recognition and mapping pedestrian routes. Here’s where wayfinding gets creative.