The importance of signage beyond wayfinding

The usefulness of signage is undeniable when it comes to navigation and wayfinding — it’s easy for property developers, architects, and interior designers to understand this, yet still overlook the importance and benefits of signage beyond its most basic functionality.

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In the realm of navigation and branding, signage is an indispensable, yet often underappreciated element. Those in the know, however, recognise the return on investment offered by giving signage the reverence it deserves and treating wayfinding and user experience as an intrinsic part of the design process for spaces. These disciplines offer significant value for those who understand the advantages when developing wayfinding strategy and signage design with suitable consideration and care.

Rather than treating signage as an afterthought in the Contract Administration phase of a project, consider signage from the outset, and leverage its potential and value as a critical aspect of end-user experience. Those who prioritise signage and wayfinding strategy as a critical design discipline can reap the benefits of improved navigation, strengthened branding, and increased user satisfaction.

Read on to better understand the key considerations to keep in mind if you're looking to maximise the impact of signage in your projects by tapping into their full potential.


Get the functional basics right

Consider the functional aspects of signs with regards to orientation and user experience.

At their most fundamental level, signs exist to serve their core functional purpose of communication. This functionality is most commonly understood in the context of wayfinding, where signs direct users to entrances, exits, restrooms, and other essential facilities. By communicating directions or instructions, signs establish order and purpose within a built environment.

In terms of how signs communicate information practically, it can be beneficial to mentally categorise these modes of communication into three key functions (as coined by Per Mollerup in his 2005 book 'Wayshowing'); identification, explanation, and instruction.

Understanding these modes of communication elucidates the diverse ways in which signage communicates with its audience on a technical level. Whether it's the simple identification of landmarks, nuanced explanation of spatial relationships, or explicit instruction for behavioral guidance, each mode serves a distinct purpose in enhancing wayfinding efficacy. By recognising and leveraging these modes, designers can create signage solutions that convey information and guide users effectively.

Identification: This mode focuses on clearly identifying elements. For example, a sign indicating 'Reception' serves the purpose of identifying the reception area within a space. In this form, the sign is a simple yet effective tool that helps people navigate and orient themselves within the environment.

Explanation: Signage can go beyond mere identification to provide explanations that aid navigation. For instance, a sign stating 'Reception' with an accompanying arrow added now offers directional guidance, pointing individuals towards the reception area more generally — the sign explains how to find 'Reception'. Used in tandem with identification, this mode of communication can enhance people's understanding of their surroundings by facilitating their journey.

Instruction: The instruction mode prompts individuals to take or refrain from specific actions. A sign displaying 'No Entry' instructs people not to enter a certain area. Instructions like these often play a crucial role in maintaining order and establishing safety within a space.

While these modes of communication primarily focus on practical and technical aspects, there are instances where signage can transcend this 'objective' level of messaging to communicate on a 'subjective' level. In many contexts, the responsibility of signage goes beyond simply conveying information through objective qualities, but also carrying meaning based on how it is interpreted and perceived.

Viewing signage through a semiotic lens reveals the symbolic and cultural implications surrounding both the conceptual and tangible forms of signs. Semiotics, or the study of signs and symbols, allows us to delve deeper into how signs communicate meaning beyond their literal content. By examining the cultural and contextual factors that influence interpretation, we can understand how signs evoke emotions, convey identity, and shape perceptions within a given environment.

While signs primarily serve as practical information devices, they also possess inherent symbolic and cultural significance that influences how they are perceived and understood. By considering these subjective aspects, designers can create signage that resonates with their audience on a deeper level, enhancing the overall user experience and contributing positively to the sense of place and identity within a space.


Consider the impact of meaning

Understanding the relationship between the signifier and the signified is crucial when considering the meaning of signs.

Symbols embedded within signage carry rich cultural and contextual meanings, influencing how they are perceived and understood. An example of this is the color red — this may symbolise danger or urgency in some cultures, while in others, it may represent luck or celebration.

Additionally, the design elements and aesthetics of signage play a significant role in evoking specific emotions and associations. For example, a minimalist design could convey a sense of modernity and sophistication, while a more ornate style may evoke tradition and elegance.

By grasping the symbolic and cultural implications embedded within the form of signage, designers can create experiences that resonate more deeply with users by tapping into deeper layers of interpretation and connection within a given context.

As originally proposed by Shannon and Weaver in 'The Mathematical Theory of Communication', the impact of signage can be considered on the technical, semantic, and effectiveness levels. These levels assess legibility, comprehensibility, and persuasiveness respectively.

On the technical level, a sign's message is considered as a signal, emphasising the importance of legibility for easy perception.

The semantic level focuses on the meaning conveyed by the message and its comprehension by the audience, highlighting the necessity of clear and understandable communication.

At the effectiveness level, the emphasis is on how the message influences the receiver's behavior, with persuasiveness being crucial for achieving the desired outcome.

This framework underscores the intricacy of communication and the need for thorough evaluation to ensure the successful transmission and reception of a message. As Konrad Lorenz, a renowned behaviorist, aptly stated:

"'Being heard' is not the same as 'being understood', and 'being understood' is not the same as 'convincing somebody'."


Reflect brands deeply

Recognise the power of design to create meaning and purpose.

When considering the design of signage, to be effective it must succeed on all levels of communication. As explored above, signs must function on a technical level — being legible and visible — and on a basic semantic level — where language and images are comprehensible to readers. However, to truly make an impact, signage must also excel in effectiveness by convincing and resonating with its audience.

Often it's obvious when signs fail to function on a technical or a basic semantic level — people are not where they need to be, or not following the instructions required of them. When signs neglect the deeper levels of communication in semantics and effectiveness, however, the consequences may not always be as immediately evident. Failing to give sufficient attention to these levels of signage communication prevents us from leveraging the full potential of signage beyond technical functionality.

Signage has the power to communicate meaning, evoke emotions, and reinforce brand identity. When signs lack depth and fail to resonate with their audience on a deeper level, they miss out on opportunities to enhance user experiences, strengthen brand connections, and contribute to the overall atmosphere and identity of a space.

An example of this impact in practice is the way signage can silently reinforce narratives for brands or places, embedding meaning into our daily lives. Here signage acts as a powerful ambassador, communicating symbolically and establishing identity. Rather than being purely decorative, signage design has the power to simultaneously uphold a brand aesthetic and foster a sense of place or purpose.

For brands, signage holds the potential to be more than just a representation of a logo or brand colors. By adopting a product design perspective, signage becomes an immersive extension of the brand essence in the built world. It's about infusing the brand's concept into every detail, from material choices to typography and form.

However, it's not just about aesthetics; strategic decisions around signage should align with a brand's values and the type of customer experience being sought. Whether aiming to evoke a sense of luxury, innovation, inclusivity, or any other brand aspiration, signage design should reflect and respond to these values. By integrating brand values into signage decisions, signs become a powerful tool for enhancing the customer experience, driving engagement, and fostering loyalty. In practice, sometimes a successful outcome may be about being perceived to 'do more'… but often it's the opposite. Sometimes the greatest mark of success for a signage system is that it isn't consciously noticed at all by most, but instead shapes perceptions unconsciously — dutifully serving users without drawing attention to itself.

When designed and implemented with care, signage can reinforce trust and strengthen emotional bonds with brands. This level of design consideration imbues spaces with a sense of purpose and significance, allowing them to resonate profoundly with their intended audience. When anchored in meaningful concepts, signage design has the potential to leave a lasting impact.

Example of a well integrated, light touch approach to signage at Alba Thermal Springs & Spa. Signage by MASS

Consider the cost of oversight

Getting it wrong can be more expensive than you may realise.

Neglecting proper wayfinding and signage design can prove to be a costly oversight for any organisation. User experience encompasses all interactions between individuals and an organisation in both physical and digital domains, and each of these interactions has the potential to either strengthen or weaken the relationship between the individual and the organisation. Despite this critical reality, signage is often treated as an afterthought in project development, even though it plays a pivotal role in shaping the end-user experience.

In contrast to architecture, interior design, and outdoor landscaping which are recognised as distinct disciplines, wayfinding has historically been overlooked by comparison. However, by recognising its importance and integrating it into the design development process, significant value can be unlocked. Effective wayfinding strategies and signage design not only enhance user experiences but also contribute to long-term brand loyalty and project success.

While signage may seem like a minor detail compared to other branding touchpoints, its impact should not be underestimated. Serving as a key point of contact between a brand and its audience, signage plays a crucial role in shaping impressions. Well-designed signage not only guides individuals through spaces but also communicates a brand's identity and narrative, seamlessly integrating with its surroundings — complementing its environment without overpowering it.

Effective signage design requires careful consideration of its role within a broader system. By integrating signage into a comprehensive flow, ensuring it complements its environment, and balancing visibility with subtlety, organisations can create signage solutions that enhance user experience and foster positive emotional connection.

It pays not to underestimate the impact of signage. When treated as an afterthought, rather than an integral part of the design process, signage usually lacks the necessary meaning and relevance to make a significant impact. This oversight can result in signage failing to fulfil its intended purpose and, in some cases, run the risk of causing more harm than good — especially when a sign acts as the first touchpoint a customer has with your brand.