How to design wayfinding for urban spaces

Article written by

Jonathan Docksey, Design JD

Written on 03/02/2016 | Posted 1 year 10 months 15 days ago

More from Jonathan Docksey, Design JD

Jonathan Docksey, creative director at Design JD, is an expert in devising wayfinding solutions for both corporate and community needs. In his first article for Output, he advises what needs to be considered in order to effectively devise navigational signage for town centres and other urban areas.

In a generation where we increasingly shop online, town centres need to become inviting and engaging places in order to attract visitors. A populated high street will not only increase sales for retailers, but will create a stronger feeling of community in the area. A well thought-out wayfinding solution can go a long way towards helping towns to achieve this, as well as giving visitors the tools they need to fully appreciate the locale.

An innate desire to explore 

While being able to navigate from A to B safely and with minimal effort, a great part of experiencing a location comes from encountering new places. So many stories have been told throughout the generations of finding out about that great new café round the back of the lane, beside the red pillar-box. A successful wayfinding strategy has two parts: destination and discovery. We all need to get to the place we came for, but if a town or retail area can encourage people to take a different route and come across something new, it improves the perception of the place in the visitor's mind.

Increasing dwell time is key ensuring a town centre thrives and develops. To achieve this, it is important to have relevant, current and helpful information readily available to every type of visitor. This can come in several forms, from clearly designated information points to apps allowing current and live information as well as travel guidance. Solutions made to accommodate all users, particularly the visually, mentally and physically impaired (collaboration on this front should be made with key bodies such as the RNIB, the Alzheimer's Society and others).

A multi-level experience

An urban signage project has a very special opportunity to be able to change and improve journeys. As well as improving people's awareness of the locations around them, it can help them find alternative, sustainable transport methods.

A wayfinding strategy can take its place across both built and digital environments, so it is important that it retains an element of consistency across all media and touchpoints. In the built environment, it is good to have a range of signage designed specifically for each area, as this can help to reinforce an area's history and image.  

However a wayfinding project is devised, the correct information must be delivered at the point of need for each user and journey. A map on a pedestrian monolith gives an overall impression of the area upon arrival, as well as indicating external destinations to aid onward journeys. Fingerposts are great to reassure users they are on track. Placing these carefully in the right locations can lead to an intuitive, cost-effective solution. 

A long-term solution

When developing a wayfinding system for growing town or city centre, it is crucial to ensure that the project has a sustainable future. It is important to ensure that the signage is flexible enough to respond to changes. This includes choosing the right hardware as well as setting up the correct procedures for full maintenance. To extend the life of the signage, protecting against vandalism and mitigating weather damage and development requirements should be part of the process. 

For forward thinking projects, technology such as NFC readers, digital signs and touchscreens and integrated advertising might also be considered. Additionally, tools for interaction between mobile devices and static navigation tools can expand the utility of the sign: for example, linking timetables for films at the local cinema through an augmented reality app or QR code. Retailers could also use beacons and other technology to engage with visitors through offers and location-based promotions.

Well designed wayfinding is a key way to set in motion the revitalisation of urban areas, increasing spend, footfall and regional reputation while offering a more satisfying experience for visitors. Successful towns and cities made accessibly by wayfinding leave lasting positive legacies, building thriving tourism and business environments and becoming hubs for our communities.


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