Article What is Wayfinding and Why is it Important?

Directional and contextual clues are part of our everyday lives. Some are bold and obvious, while others offer more subtle guidance. Whether it’s large exit signs on the highway, or color-coded hallways, wayfinding is all around us.


What is Wayfinding?

Wayfinding is the use of signage, color, and other design elements to help occupants navigate a space, and it can be a particularly important design consideration in multifaceted spaces like healthcare complexes or educational campuses.

Wayfinding can be an effective tool to safely manage the movement and flow of people, encourage social distancing, improve user experience, and contribute to a sense of wellbeing and security. How our brains interpret these situations has helped evolve and improve how we implement wayfinding in everyday life.

The Gestalt Theory
Gestalt psychology is based on the idea that the human brain will attempt to simplify and organize complex images or designs with multiple elements. Our brains are designed to see structure and patterns to help us better understand our environment, instead of groups of unequal elements.

Wayfinding uses this psychology in a positive manner, by designing in a way that supports identifying and processing a larger, more complex system instead of a deluge of small components. Wayfinding is important, especially in complex commercial spaces like healthcare and educational facilities where it can provide vital cues in emergency situations when time is of the essence, or offer a stress-free navigational experience.

Flooring design — both with color and pattern — is one way to implement wayfinding to encourage preferred routes, establish natural transitions between spaces and differentiate between public and private areas.

The Role of Flooring in Wayfinding

Flooring, and its necessary role in everyday life, lends itself as a natural source for wayfinding. It can easily be used to create paths leading occupants through a space and to make navigation at intersections more manageable.

Flooring can also easily subdivide a space into different areas with a distinct set of visual attributes, which assists wayfinding by providing additional cues for orientation. These areas, which are often defined by visual appearance, can set apart distinct building functions such as a waiting area or nurses’ station.

Whether it’s through distinct colors, shapes, or utilizing space, flooring can play a starring role in simplifying wayfinding and defining spaces throughout a variety of facilities.

Examples of Wayfinding

Color and Shape

Bright pops of color and simple, deliberate wayfinding is an excellent choice in areas like an elementary school. See this use of color at Lincoln Douglas Elementary School, where each school grade level was assigned a color and shape. Floor wayfinding helped students find their section of the school, and by implementing shapes into the wayfinding, this aided students with color blindness.

Shapes were further used to provide wayfinding guidance to areas like the school nurse (first aid symbol), or to the tornado shelter (tornado image) for quick and easy identification in emergency situations.

Creating Paths

Our natural tendency, as we learn from the Gestalt theory, is to follow continuous figures like lines, paths, or curves. We can use this to our advantage when designing wayfinding by encouraging flow of movement within a building, like delineating directional corridors. See how the Katherine Johnson Technology Magnet Academy accomplished this through intentional wayfinding design.

This flow of traffic, and its efficiencies, are extremely important in healthcare settings as well. Visual clues like flooring wayfinding not only offer more success helping patients and guests find desired destinations, but it also helps keep patients and guests from entering employee-only areas. UNC Children’s Hospital implemented floor wayfinding to great success, easily guiding patients and guests throughout the hospital.

Delineation of Space

In addition to navigation, flooring design can help visually dedicate spaces for collaboration, or areas that can accommodate focused activity or work. These spacing cues do not need to come from physical barriers, but instead flooring can set apart these types of spaces in a cleaner, more open design.

Why Wayfinding Matters

Most people can relate to an extremely difficult navigation experience, whether it’s in a store, airport, or another public area. Customers and visitors want to return to spaces that are enjoyable, easy to navigate and convenient. — they do not gravitate to places that cause confusion, frustration, or negative experiences.

By using implementing well-designed wayfinding, facilities can create a sense of safety and understanding in unfamiliar places, especially in areas where urgent situations occur. Additionally, well-designed flooring can help delineate space and control the flow of traffic, making the experience better for everyone involved.

Interested in diving deeper into wayfinding? For article references and to learn more, check out our white paper about the intricacies of wayfinding.