Wayfinding: The Value of Knowing How to Get There

Identifying gateway locations that relate to the surrounding scale, background, foreground and day and night visibility is critical to a complete wayfinding system.
image: MERJE Design

Planners, business associations, governments, visitors, and residents are becoming more aware of the importance of attractive and informative wayfinding signage to help them steer through the complexities and appreciate the changing environment of a city setting. Incorporating a signage and wayfinding system as part of the planning process is critical to the effectiveness of an overall revitalization strategy.

The best wayfinding systems feature consistent standards that can be adapted and altered as required to locate existing destinations plus adapt to feature future development. Creating a consistent and recognizable graphics and placement standard results in a system that responds to the goals and planning vision, and ensures the system is comprehensive and appears neither fragmented nor piecemeal.

Image courtesy MERJE Design.
Vehicular directional wayfinding sign. The design criteria includes a unique and vibrant sign program that reflects the spirit of Downtown Phoenix, Arizona. Image courtesy MERJE Design.

Wayfinding is more than signage. Developing an identity, a “brand,” is essential for a successful wayfinding program, and it makes the wayfinding design process exciting. Wayfinding combines marketing, consensus building, identity, planning, function, and design. It is a process of navigating through public and private spaces and maximizing that experience by explaining the environment ahead, recognizing that the user might employ several different modes of transportation.

Image courtesy MERJE Design.
Establishing an identity or “brand” on all signage systems creates a cohesive message to visitors. Location: Phoenix, Arizona. Image courtesy MERJE Design.

Wayfinding is a vital tool of economic development. Cities realize that there is a net benefit to a shared approach to attracting business and capturing resident and tourist dollars. A high-functioning wayfinding system makes the environment “legible” and enhances the visitors’ experience as it increases their comfort, builds their confidence, and encourages them to discover unique events, attractions and destinations on their own.

Image courtesy MERJE Design.
Pedestrian wayfinding directional signage linking destinations. Signs should be visible but maintain the rhythm of street furnishing and maintain clear zones for pedestrians. Location: San Diego, California. Image courtesy MERJE Design.

There are typically three stages when traveling into a city to reach a destination: 1) entering the city, 2) parking, and 3) arrival. Making the parking and walking experience positive heightens the appeal of the place and, in many cases, increases repeat visits by as much as 30% to primary and secondary destinations.

Legible cities improve people’s understanding, experiences and enjoyment of the city. The concept is simple; it’s the right message at the right time. By integrating information and identity, legible cities link the users to destinations in a complete and seamless movement. Whether it is a tourist needing to find a destination, someone with a business appointment to keep, or someone stepping off a train, trolley, or bus, legible cities aim to take users into account at every turn. Ease of navigation benefits business, transportation, culture, tourism and, most importantly, the people of the city. Making connections can also achieve wider social, economic and cultural benefits and promote business and civic pride.

 Image courtesy MERJE Design.
Maps need to be legible and informative, providing visitors options for transportation, locations for destinations, different districts or communities and a clear sense of how to navigate to each option. Location: San Diego, California. Image courtesy MERJE Design and RICK Engineering.

Understanding and inventorying an existing wayfinding system is like completing a puzzle without a picture of where things are, and why. In many cases a confusing mix of unrelated signs have been installed over decades with the emphasis on individual needs rather then the development of a comprehensive system with a consistent theme or message. With the aid of GPS systems we are able to locate all the existing signs with images, building a data base that can analyze inconsistencies in messaging, direction, location, frequency, and relevance. The need to educate the public and stakeholders is critical to the success of a complete wayfinding program. Think of wayfinding as the means to transition or link between events. To get to one destination, it may take a number of signs. Imagine how complex and bewildering it can be for the public, stakeholder, and policy makers to review and understand the overlapping and interconnecting web of a vehicular and pedestrian wayfinding system.

With the aid of GPS, and Google Earth technology, existing and proposed wayfinding systems can be analyzed from hundreds of miles overhead or [at ground level] moving from major roadways through city blocks to destinations. The public and stakeholders can now be part of the process. They can participate in the analysis and programming, and choose sign types and suggest messaging, which allows the complex web of individual interests to be part of the final wayfinding system.

Image courtesy RICK Engineering.
Global Information Systems (GIS) overlaid onto Google Earth are used to delineate existing and proposed signage locations in a very complicated urban environment. Location: San Diego, California. Image courtesy RICK Engineering.
Image courtesy MERJE Design.
A complete wayfinding design menu for pedestrians and vehicular navigation that is consistent in the identity of the place and enforcing the message. Diagram for Downtown San Diego, California. Image courtesy MERJE Design.

Truly effective wayfinding systems are a hallmark of great cities. The benefits of these systems are well worth the modest investments required. Wayfinding can easily enhance various aspects of cities, ranging from community interaction, resident socializing, business vitality, and even civic engagement. A complete and contemporary wayfinding system is essential in most cities. The benefits of these effective systems are far reaching and should not be overlooked.

Image courtesy MERJE Design and RICK Engineering.
Wayfinding analysis considers a variety of wayfinding tools: landscaping, lighting, street furniture, landmarks, signage gateway elements, mapping, banners and public art, as well as related issues such as sustainability, climate and integration of technology. Image courtesy MERJE Design and RICK Engineering.

by Martin Flores, ASLA and Michael Young

Martin Flores, ASLA, is the Director of Urban Design and Planning at Rick Engineering Company in San Diego, California and can be reached at: mflores@rickengineering.com.

Michael Young is a Senior Planner at Rick Engineering Company, Planning and Urban Design in San Diego, California and can be reached at: myoung@rickengineering.com.

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