Find Your Way Back: Wayfinding Signage Can Often Be a Matter of Life and Death

Whether you’re trying to navigate an international airport after a red-eye flight, find your way through a large medical center after receiving a call that a loved one has been hospitalized, or trying to find the correct building and classroom on your first day of college classes, navigating these large, complex locations can be a substantial challenge even under the best of conditions. Now, take any or all of these scenarios and imagine that you are blind or otherwise disabled. That will only compound the challenge of finding your way to where you need to go. And what about in the case of an emergency? What if there’s a fire? What if the power is out and there is minimal or no lighting? Combine all of that with the heightened emotion of the situation—and, again, a disability—and you can see that effective wayfinding signage can literally be a matter of life and death.

Wayfinding seems like it should be a very simple topic, but it can be highly complex; there have even been doctoral dissertations written on effective wayfinding systems for, say, hospitals ( While it’s something that we often take for granted—there’s always an illuminated “exit” sign when we need one, right?—we have all at one time or another likely been led astray by poorly designed or confusing—or non-existent—signage. While that’s more often than not just a nuisance or a waste of time, that confusion can have dire consequences in an emergency and if you are disabled. This is why the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has come to have such an important impact on wayfinding signage, and is perhaps the one thing that needs to be mastered before a provider or designer can wade into the wayfinding world.

At the same time, new technologies are enabling new kinds of signs, better sign aesthetics, and architects and designers are constantly trying to devise better ways to help people navigate around ever larger and more complex buildings.

Different Types of Wayfinding

The term “wayfinding” itself can mean different things to different people. “In Europe,” said Marina Batzke, general manager of American Permalight, “‘wayfinding’ means ‘to find your way around,’ but to us means ‘finding your way out.’” American Permalight specializes in photoluminescent signs and luminous exit markings to help people find their way out of darkened environments, such as buildings during, say, a power failure. In fact, the company’s products had been installed in the World Trade Center and helped many escape the towers during the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001.

To others, though, “wayfinding” can refer to any signage that helps people, essentially, find their way. It can be temporary—like signage at a trade show or other event that tells you where specific sessions are located—or it can be relatively permanent. It may need to be easily changed, so when companies and other institutions rebrand—or relocate departments—whatever new signage is required can be installed readily. It needs to be vandal-proof—if an arrow directs people to the left, how easy would it be for some miscreant to turn the arrow to the right? If it’s outdoor signage, it needs to be water-, weather- and UV-proof. It can be analog (printed or molded signs) or it can be, increasingly, digital (LCD or other types of monitors—displays at airports that tell you what gate your flight has been changed to can be considered “wayfinding”). “Wayfinding” can even refer to people you can ask for directions. 

The advent of wide-format printers—especially the flatbed UV variety—has opened up whole new types of signage in general, and wayfinding in particular, and made it easier to create wayfinding signage that is both effective and aesthetically pleasing, merging harmoniously with the environment.

But the physical printing and manufacture of wayfinding signage is in many ways the easiest part of the process, which often (and increasingly) begins before a single glob of cement has been poured or a brick has been laid. It often begins at the blueprint stage of new building construction.

Designing de Sign

Signs Now-Holland, based in Holland, MI, provides a full range of wayfinding signage consultation, design, manufacturing, and installation services.

“In our company, we have project managers that work directly with architects and builders,” said Leslie Louisell, co-owner of Signs Now-Holland. “We start at the level of blueprints and work with those involved in the planning of that building. We do the sign schedule, then it goes to the owners of the building, or whoever will approve the design.” Wayfinding signage is important in that, depending on the state or municipality, it can impact the occupancy of a building. “In Michigan at least, if your signage isn’t up and correct, you can’t get occupancy,” said Louisell. “It’s important that signage get completed in a given time.” Delays in occupancy can cost owners and landlords—and tenants—money.

Like any aspect of graphic communications, wayfinding has trends that come and go. Today’s trends, observed Louisell, include a greater emphasis on pictograms and symbols, particularly in more cosmopolitan locations like airports and urban hospitals where visitors may speak any of a wide variety of languages—none of which are native to location being visited. The symbols being used have to be universally identifiable and clearly delineated.

The capabilities of wide-format graphics are also making basic wayfinding signs more aesthetic, and logos and other branding-related graphics and typefaces are being integrated into wayfinding. The downside to this trend is that a rebrand can make replacing all the signage a substantial challenge and a major expense. Thus, a lot of wayfinding signage today is modular; the printed graphics are installed into permanent frames (often aluminum) and can be readily swapped out if a logo or other branding elements change.

“Rebranding is happening a lot lately,” said Louisell. “If a hospital has their logo on their signs, it’s just an enormous task. Sometimes it takes years to actually complete it, even though printing has gotten easier.” Hence the desire for modular signage.

Sticking Points

New capabilities of wide-format printers are enabling an ever-wider variety of substrates to be used for wide-format graphics in general, signage in particular, and wayfinding in even more particular. One hot new substrate is magnetic materials.

Mendon, MA-based Visual Magnetics has developed a platform for oft-reinstalled graphics based on the company’s ActiveWall Micro-Iron primer, which is painted on a wall or other surface. The paint contains iron particles that effectively turn the wall into a giant refrigerator. Then, a magnetic sheet is applied to the ActiveWall primer, where it will stick magnetically. Graphics are printed on the company’s MagnaMedia which is not a magnet but contains the same iron particles as the Active Wall, and can then be layered on top of the InvisiLock.

Visual Magnetics Graphic System is the company's commercially available wayfinding system, said Dan Halkyard, Visual Magnetics’ director of marketing and product management. Carnival Cruise Lines recently used Visual Magnetics’ products for a wayfinding system for passengers to find where on-board photographs were being posted. That location changed daily, so they needed a system that could be swapped out fairly readily, and easily removable magnetic material proved ideal.

Magnetic substrates can also be used in lieu of traditional channel letters, and installers can orient the poles of the magnet to create magnetic “channels” to ensure that individual die-cut letters are aligned perfectly straight. “You can take that letter and slide it horizontally and it will not leave that channel,” said Halkyard. “It goes perfectly straight across the wall.”

Halkyard recognizes that magnetic wayfinding signage is prone to alteration or—not to put too fine a point on it—vandalism. “It would need to be in a location where it could not be altered,” he said. “You can envision someone taking a right-hand sign and turning it into a left-hand sign. So it’s trying to find those specific applications where it’s easy to change graphics but can’t necessarily be altered. We’re trying to find the sweet spot for that.”


Printing technology, substrates, and new applications are opening up new avenues for creators and designers of wayfinding signage, but there is one topic above all else in which almost anyone hoping to get involved in wayfinding needs to be conversant: the ADA.

In 1990, Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act and although it has a wide-ranging set of rules and regulations, important aspects of it cover signage, particularly wayfinding. Over the years, changes and tweaks have been made to the regulations, so if a company is designing wayfinding signage, they need to be up-to-date. Among other things, the ADA’s regulations define where the Braille translation of sign text is positioned relative to the non-Braille text—and even the correct height and position of a sign relative to, say, a door so that a visually impaired person can find the sign at all, let alone read the Braille on it. Then there is raised sign lettering. Many visually impaired persons don’t read Braille, but do tactilely “read” the raised non-Braille letters themselves. Both approaches put limitations on the textured substrates that signmakers can use. “On occasion, we send out a sign to the Association for the Blind,” said Louisell. “They have actually turned down some materials. We were looking for sustainable materials for LEED signs and if there is too much texture in the background it interferes with the Braille reader’s ability to read.”

It’s not just the visually impaired who are covered by the ADA, but those who are in wheelchairs, and the ADA’s requirements are very specific about where signage that indicates wheelchair accessibility should go. In older buildings, not all rest rooms are wheelchair-accessible (in all new constructions, all rest rooms are required to be), so signage needs to clearly direct wheelchair-bound people to where those rest rooms are. And an important part of the signage is to clearly denote where areas of rescue assistance are in the event of an emergency.

Making the issue even more convoluted is that each state has its own requirements in addition to the Federal rules. For example, the Federal regulations exempt churches from the wayfinding signage requirements—but Michigan requires churches to comply. California also has very specific signage and wayfinding requirements.

Louisell’s number one piece of advice to anyone looking to enter the wayfinding signage market? “Get comfortable with regulations,” she said. “There are a lot of wonderful designers out there, but they really don’t understand the ADA. Pull the regulations, understand them.”

Getting There

Not all wayfinding signage is subject to ADA regulations—temporary trade show signage, for example—but no matter what kind of wayfinding your are designing or printing, the number one goal is ensuring that the signage actually helps rather than hinders people from getting where they need to go.