Wayfinding is more than a spelling error

If you look up the word “wayfinding” in the dictionary, you find nothing. No, really. According to the Oxford English Dictionary and most other Macintosh Dictionary plug-ins, “wayfinding” is not a thing. In fact, if you type out the word “wayfinding” on your screen, chances are you’ll get that funky red line underneath it that tells you it’s a spelling error.

But somewhere out there right now, there are teams of graphic designers engaging in? … wayfinding. And they’re earning quite a bit of money doing it.

So then what is wayfinding? Well, given that designers like to keep things simple, including technical terms, wayfinding is exactly what it sounds like: the use of design elements to help people find their way.

Design by  P-06 Atelier , 2013

Design by P-06 Atelier, 2013

This probably stirs a few mental pictures for you. Signage! Wayfinding is all of those signs with arrows that tell you where baggage claim and ground transportation is at the airport, where the nearest restrooms are in shopping malls, or what exit is coming up in 1/2 mile! Yes. Those all live in the realm of wayfinding. But no, that isn’t all wayfinding is.

The Society of Experiential Graphic Design (SEGD) refers to wayfinding as an information system aimed at guiding people through spaces, helping them enhance their experience and understanding of that space. In other words, wayfinding is not just about navigation, it’s about making a better experience. This means it includes signs, but it also includes anything else you might use to find something or somewhere specific. Like a menu bar on a website. Or an index or table of contents in a book. So, as mentioned, wayfinding is more than signs.

Wayfinding has its roots in information design. In a physical space, that something specific may be to find the baggage claim or ground transportation. But wayfinding isn’t limited to physical spaces alone since it’s primary purpose is to help an audience orient and navigate—to figure out where they are and how to get where they want to be.

While traditional wayfinding is based in graphic design, it also finds itself living in the realms of architecture, interior design, and even urban planning. Wayfinding designers work together with teams from each discipline to figure out how people will flow into and out of spaces, where major decision points will occur, and where signage and other navigation tools might be placed to help keep people better informed as they move through and around the spaces. 

The use of an accent color can help simplify overly complex buildings and campuses. If the icons are blue, you’re in the “blue” building. Design by  .

The use of an accent color can help simplify overly complex buildings and campuses. If the icons are blue, you’re in the “blue” building. Design by .

Wayfinding designers use many tools to help people navigate a space, especially human behavior. They’ll work with lighting and materials to see if perhaps the audience can be informed more intuitively, as well as using more obvious tools such as signs. For example, if working on a complex series of buildings, a wayfinding designer may suggest to the interiors team that they use a different color in each building so people intuitively recognize they are in the “red” building, or maybe the “yellow” one, thus orienting them in a manner that relies on no signage at all. Or if there’s an area the building owners want to keep people out of, lighting can be used to subconsciously push people away from that space—people avoid dark areas instinctively, and this information can be used to influence behavior. 

Knowing how people behave and react when given certain environmental circumstances helps wayfinding designers inform their audience without overwhelming them with visual clutter. After all, wayfinding is a form of graphic design. And as such, it’s job is to quietly inform “you are here,” not scream “LOOK AT ME!”