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We’ve all been on the journey from hell. Perhaps it was a car journey, where the satnav failed us and the promised destination didn’t exist; maybe we followed a street map only to find that the area had changed; or, in a classic wayfinding fail, we followed the signs only to have them disappear as if by magic before reaching our desired endpoint.

Although all of these examples imply an issue with directions, whether electronic or physical, they all lead to the same end result: a poor experience. I find myself fed up with the unnavigable town centre and disappointed in the badly designed leisure park. That bad memory stays with me. “Don’t go there,” I tell my friends, “it’s a nightmare. We couldn’t find anything.”

A successful wayfinding design allows users to successfully determine their location, destination and develop their own plan to navigate from one to the other. This practise is key to avoiding frustration and indecision in another brand journey.

Poor customer experience has a powerful negative effect on your brand. It reduces your brand equity because people associate that bad experience with you and your identity. Instead of inspiring the reactions we’d hoped for, our customers now associate our logo and our name with something frustrating and negative. Countless studies have shown that negative brand experience leads to a reduction in confidence in brands and ultimately a reduction in visits.

Wayfinding is much more than a signage issue – it’s a brand issue. Poor wayfinding has direct consequences for your brand. Get it wrong and you’re jeopardising the good reputation and marketing efforts in which you’ve invested so much time and money. Incredibly, despite the direct correlation between wayfinding and customer experience, most brands pay little attention to the subject. A small budget is allocated to signage (rather than wayfinding), and it’s given a low priority. There’s little strategy going into ensuring that people can navigate your site. Millions are spent on the aesthetics of a building, but peanuts on ensuring that people can seamlessly and intuitively navigate it and have a terrific time while they’re there.

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Over the decades we’ve worked on wayfinding projects with clients across retail, leisure, education and the public realm we’ve developed a well-honed process that ensures that your wayfinding system not only contributes to a positive customer experience but also maintains brand integrity. We’ve learnt a lot over the last 20 years, so here are five of our top principles for successful wayfinding design.

1. Start early

Too frequently signage and wayfinding are afterthoughts in building design, or they are brought into the development process too late. In our experience, the wayfinding strategy and its principles need to be brought into play early in the design and feasibility process so that it’s an integral part of the development. In our work with Waitrose we are involved at the earliest feasibility stage in designing branding and wayfinding solutions, sometimes for schemes that never even proceed beyond this stage. For them, customer experience is so important that these issues need to be considered at the very beginning of the project and then followed through the development process.

It's not only design that needs to be factored in at this early stage. Costs are also an important consideration. Often, “a few signs” are costed at the early part of a development project without there being any serious consideration of the wayfinding strategy and its likely costs.

When we started working with Center Parcs at Woburn in Bedfordshire there was nothing but a sea of mud and lots of trees. Getting involved that early meant we could work with the designers of road systems, service and utility providers, and operational managers to ensure that signage and wayfinding was built in at every level of the site. We were able to recommend design changes that helped to give a more intuitive and positive customer experience. And we were able to help them build a realistic signage budget based on actual requirements.

2. Architecture and wayfinding are intertwined

Architecture and wayfinding should work together seamlessly, one complementing the other. Early involvement means that wayfinding can be considered as a part of the overall scheme design and is sensitively designed for environmental appropriateness. Often, wayfinding considerations have an effect on the architectural design and cause it to change to ensure a better overall experience.

Working with Center Parcs on their Woburn village we found the need to reroute traffic, change one-way flows, and championed changes to some areas of the site that led to better and simpler routes for visitors. On another recent project we’ve been working closely with the architectural team of a new higher education campus to ensure that the large open spaces in the buildings contribute to a great experience by considering wall graphics, colour strategy, directional signage and branding as part of the detailed design phase for the building.

We’ve always found it’s best to work in a collaborative team with architects and clients, each bringing the benefit of our experience to the project to achieve a great result. By relentlessly striving to create great customer and visitor experiences, and working together we can blend the best of our collective wisdom and create something truly special.

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3. Put people first

We’ve found over many years that signage is often seen as the Band-Aid for poorly designed wayfinding schemes. “Stick up another sign,” becomes the mantra, until a site is clogged with inconsistent and even contradictory signage. This represents a failure to consider the most important ingredient in any wayfinding system: the people using it.

Any wayfinding solution must to be people-centred, taking into account the user at every stage. By combining sciences like communication studies, ergonomics, psychology, semiotics, and sociology, with empathy and design sensitivity, we are able to create unique wayfinding strategies and designs which meets the unique needs of each user – no matter what the brand, environment or context.

Signage and information should always be thought through from the point of view of the person who is making the decisions. Where too much signage is applied without thought to the way in which people might process or use it,signs exist merely “for the sake of it”, or to fulfil a perceived legislative need, but which either detract from or obscure the main purpose of a person’s journey.

People process information in different ways depending on a variety of factors and these need to be taken account of in any wayfinding design. Striving for simplicity and avoiding ambiguity will mean that the widest possible audience is able to engage with and make use of the wayfinding system. Could a child understand this direction? Would this sign work in the dark? Could a wheelchair user make use of these directions?

4. Understand that it’s not just signs

Sadly, for many organisations, wayfinding is simply a matter of putting up a lot of signs – something that’s often thought about towards the end of a project. Good wayfinding, however, creates a human-centred system of information which supports a user’s ability to make decisions, influencing the design of the built-space, finishes, colours, lighting, sound, visual landmarks and of course signage.

Our work with the University of Northampton on their new Riverside Campus has involved extensive work with the architecture team helping to build wayfinding clues into the buildings both externally and internally, so that wayfinding and destination experience become part of an integrated design rather than a poor afterthought.

Wayfinding must work across the entire customer journey and seamlessly translate across all media. From initial research online, through apps and signage, to destination design.

We need to ensure that the customer’s experience on your website works as part of the overarching wayfinding strategy. Perhaps they can download maps or plan journeys, research buildings and explore destinations. When customers arrive at your site, they’re already familiar with naming strategies and other nomenclature, so that the initial hurdles of orientation are already being overcome. We can design navigational apps that help users to traverse larger spaces, to find individual rooms in multi-storey or multi-building sites - even a piece of artwork within an exhibition.

It’s crucial to give a strong sense of arrival and welcome at any destination, consistency and reassurance during any journey and lasting positive brand memories to leave with.

At one client site, we walked past the entrance to our desired destination without even realising that it was there. The branding and arrival signage was so poor that we didn’t even see it, and consequently we wandered into the building through a side door and immediately found it impossible to orientate ourselves. On another project, for Center Parcs, we worked to create a new set of ten sub-brand identities to ensure that particular activities and destination points were clearly defined, had their own sense of identity, and gave guests a strong sense of arrival and welcome.

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5. Consistency is key

Consistency is so critical to successful wayfinding schemes. At every level, from naming to fonts, symbology to signage, there needs to be a consistent set of messages given to users. We’ve all experienced those situations where, having followed a set of signs to a location, we’re suddenly confused and disoriented because the name of the building has changed before we arrive.

This is particularly important as wayfinding services and devices proliferate, moving beyond simple signs to digital signage and handheld apps as a part of an overall wayfinding solution. Achieving consistency of iconography, naming, colour and style using a consistent visual language allows users to seamlessly switch between them.

A sense of integration and consistency needs to extend even to materials and finishes used in the construction of signage and wayfinding points. With the University of Northampton we’ve been working to ensure that the signage system complements the building finishes and designs. The external cladding materials that have been specified for the buildings on the campus are also being used to create the monolith and totem wayfinding points, creating a holistic experience for customers and users. On this site we’re also exploring integration with digital systems and signage to create flexibility for the future and allow messaging and directional information to change depending on specific events, or even times of day.

We’re passionate about great wayfinding and its power to provide great brand experiences.

In the course of our collective careers we’ve worked on hundreds of projects and sites for dozens and dozens of clients. We’ve honed our skills over many years at the coalface and we’re always looking for great new opportunities to help our clients give their customers and visitors a great experience. Do get in touch if you’d like some more advice or think we might be able to help you out with your wayfinding challenges.

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