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Finding Your Way: A Guide To Intuitive Wayfinding
The key to designing an intuitive wayfinding system is to understand the visual and physical cues that help guide people through a space—without the need for overly complicated signage. Wayfinding refers to information systems that guide people through an environment, both interior and exterior, enhancing their understanding and experience. The approach should be clear, simple, legible, located in the right place, and accessible to all people no matter of language, physical, or cognitive abilities – in other words, easy to navigate for everyone.
Considerations for designing intuitive wayfinding:
Font Size and Style
Font size is an important aspect of wayfinding design impacting readability and accessibility. Larger fonts, bold text, and italics can provide emphasis for important information, making it quickly identifiable. Font styles should be simple and easy to read for all, and sans serif fonts are preferable to serif. The recommendation for general wayfinding is for text size to be between 5/8” and 2”, with larger sizes when appropriate or when needing to be seen from a distance.
Color contrast creates a visual hierarchy, calling out important information and making it easier for people to navigate the environment. High contrast between text and the background is essential for people with visual impairments or reading difficulties. However, too much contrast or the use of too bright of a color can create visual clutter and make it more difficult to identify information. Finding the right contrast balance enhances readability and accessibility without overwhelming people.
As with font size, color provides a clear visual cue that helps people find their way and conveys meaning quickly and easily. One of the most common uses of color is to highlight directional signage or indicate where interior amenities, such as restrooms, are located. This includes arrows, symbols, and text, which are often colored to stand out from their surroundings. For example, a yellow arrow on a blue background can be used to indicate the direction to a destination. Color can also be used to break up spaces that look the same. For example, a hotel or apartment building whose floors each have a different colored theme so guests/residents do not become lost or disoriented.
It is important to consider the limitations and potential drawbacks of color and use it in a way that supports the intended purpose of the space and for the users. For example, people with color blindness may struggle to differentiate between certain colors, making it difficult to navigate through a space.
The use of non-glare surface finishes reduces the amount of reflected light, making text and graphics easier to read. Glare can be a major problem in outdoor environments, especially in bright sunlight or other high-intensity lighting conditions. Low reflective surfaces are also helpful in interior environments where artificial lighting or sun through a window can cause glare on a sign, monitor, or other surface. A matte or non-glare finish on a sign or graphics is always clearer and more readable, especially under artificial lighting, as it absorbs light rather than reflecting.
Symbols and pictograms convey meaning quickly regardless of language or cultural backgrounds and provide a simple and universal means of communication that can be understood by a wide range of people. Symbols are used in wayfinding to help users find restrooms, food, stairs, directions and so much more.
Restrooms are a place we frequently see symbology or pictograms used. They delineate gender, all gender, and accessibility. Circles and triangles are being adopted in some places as a way to indicate gender. A circle most typically represents female, while a triangle represents male. This convention is becoming more widely recognized and is often seen in public spaces. However, it is equally important to note that this binary gender representation may not be inclusive of all individuals who use the restroom. As design becomes more inclusive, some or even all restrooms may include additional options, such as all-gender toilet rooms, where we see the combination of the circle and triangle together.
The active accessibility icon is turning up more frequently in wayfinding to promote accessibility and inclusivity. This symbol, also referred to as the dynamic accessibility symbol, is a modern approach to the traditional wheelchair symbol. It depicts a person in a wheelchair in an active posture, leaning forward with their arms in motion. This was designed to challenge stereotypes about people with disabilities and promote a positive and inclusive vision.
Tactile cues are physical indicators on surfaces, such as raised patterns or textures, that provide important directional information for people with visual impairments. They are often used to indicate changes in direction, intersections, or other points of interest, but can also warn of hazards like the edge of the platform at a train station.
Handrails at stairs and ramps provide an opportunity to include a change in texture to help users as they approach the top or bottom of a level change. Our team is frequently including braille to provide information about different floors, the number of remaining stairs, or the approach to a mid-rise landing.
Tactile maps are a great tool for helping users navigate and become familiar with space. Providing a floor/building map at key locations, such as reception areas and elevator lobbies, provides a means for those with visual impairments to find their way. These raised relief graphics are a complement to audio and visual wayfinding devices for users that are blind or partially sighted, as well as those who are deaf-blind.
Technology & Audio Cues
Automated announcements and location information through technology and audio cues can provide an additional level of direction, particularly in spaces where people may become disoriented or are unfamiliar with their surroundings. Digital, interactive displays are a way to share a map of an area or interior of a building – the interactive component allows users to tap on areas of the map where they can receive audio information about where they are, and how to get to where they need to go.
There are several new technologies coming to the forefront to support wayfinding for those who may need assistance.
TransIT is a hybrid wayfinding system for urban environments that combines seating, wayfinding, and street lighting into one unit. It provides walking times to destinations and public transportation, and QR codes to access maps on personal devices. Lighting is integrated to provide extra safety at night and power is supplied through a small battery and solar unit which also allows for WiFi or phone charging.
RightHear is an app-based software program that provides talking signage to help navigate a person’s surroundings. This system can be used indoors and outdoors, and audio descriptions are delivered directly to a smartphone or tablet to help users find their way safely and independently.
Similar to RightHear, Clew is another indoor path tracing navigation app that is built for blind and visually impaired users. It is designed to remember a location like a seat or a room and assist users in independently returning to a desired location through a series of virtual breadcrumbs.
In summary, an effective wayfinding system relies on several design elements, such as font size and style, contrast, color, finish, symbology, and technology. These elements should be used in a way that supports and enhances the intended purpose of the space while accommodating the needs of all users. With these considerations in mind, it is possible to create an intuitive wayfinding system that enhances people’s experience of the environment, making finding their way independently easier.