Finding Your Way Downtown: Developing a Wayfinding Program


Wayfinding is what people do when they travel to and through a space. Wayfinding systems involve the science and art of scripting people’s travel to and through that same space. Communities should strive to prevent the frustration people experience when they have trouble finding a destination, particularly a public destination. The broader goal should be to help people discover all of the community’s other assets. In other words, wayfinding should guide the movement of people into and through a town to its advantage by “scripting the theater” of the community.

To use the analogy of retail business, the best businesses create an environment where customers not only find the products on their shopping list, but also make “surprise” discoveries. From a business perspective, the “surprise” was not an accident; it was intentional and influenced through all aspects of store design and layout, including but certainly not limited to signs. The goal is to expose customers to as much of the store’s merchandise as possible, but especially the products that command the highest profit margin. Products that aren’t found are products that aren’t bought.

The same holds true for communities. If you think this analogy is a stretch, think about how communities could benefit if their customers (tourists, current and future residents, property owners, business owners/employers, etc.) discover and use more of their community’s assets. Finding those assets can dramatically affect the impression people have of the quality of a community, ultimately affecting their desire to come back for a second visit or to stay. Every community would also love visitors to just drive through the most attractive parts of town, thereby seeing it from only the best vantage points. And, of course, Main Street organizations want everyone to drive through downtown.

However, simply putting up signs for a personally “chosen” route may not ultimately change behavior. Visitors and residents will chose their route based on a variety of factors, such as the shortest route, the fastest route, the safest route, or the most scenic route. Of more importance than those decision factors is the destination they have in mind before they start. For example, downtown may not currently be perceived as an attractive destination or as a destination at all. In other words, if people have already decided they are going someplace else (e.g., Wal-Mart) the best signage in the world won’t get them to take a community’s personally “chosen” route.

More than Signs

Community wayfinding is therefore much more than directional signage. Wayfinding is an integral part of both our design vocabulary and our communication strategies. Before a trip, people start their wayfinding by relying on what they know and think they know (perceive) about their destination and the ways to get there. This is where all our communication and marketing efforts come into play, including but not limited to printed maps. Promotional activities such as walking and driving tours can complement your wayfinding goals and help with wayfinding before the trip.

However, don’t underestimate the influence of Internet mapping services such as Mapquest, Google Maps, etc. While driving, people continue wayfinding by relying on onboard navigation services (GPS), auto-oriented signs, and landscape cues (more on this later). While walking, people complete their wayfinding by relying on pedestrian-oriented signs, a different set of landscape cues, and on-premise signage. People unfamiliar with an area, including visitors and residents who are traveling outside their normal routine, often rely on verbally shared directions and referrals—hospitality—for their wayfinding.

Most people have been exposed to formally designed wayfinding systems in malls, museums/amusements, hospitals, and airports. Most of these are interior wayfinding systems, but they can offer important lessons to help us design community wayfinding systems. These institutions often devote significant resources to design and implement their systems. Thus, it’s valuable to study all types of wayfinding systems, not just those that direct traffic through communities.

As an exercise, share stories of contexts where your wayfinding went smoothly, and why, as well as where it didn’t, and why. To expand on some of the concepts presented above:

  • Many travelers don’t research the geography/layout of a place before they take a trip. They hope instead to rely on their sense of direction (aided by landscape cues and signage when it’s present).
  • Many people don’t explore an area until they've found their target destination to ensure they have the time to wander (although they may make note of what they pass in case they have time to go back). This exploration includes parking. Determining the best way to integrate parking into your wayfinding system could be a major study in and of itself. People will look for signs that communicate not only the location of parking, but whether it is free and for how long. Most motorists won’t select a parking space until they are within sight of their final destination. People will also drive around looking for the closest parking.
  • Sometimes our destination is not part of a wayfinding directional system, but we have learned from experience that it can reliably be found near other familiar and signed destinations. For example, most people will first assume that government offices are downtown unless otherwise notified. If your government offices are located where people expect to find them, namely downtown, those offices may only need to appear on wayfinding signs on the edge or within downtown (saving space on signs for other attractions).
  • Once visitors begin to follow signs directing them to a specific attraction, they expect the signs to take them all the way to or past that attraction. It is extremely frustrating for an attraction to show up on an early sign (maybe because there happened to be room to add it) and then for it to disappear from the sign at the next decision point. Without instructions to turn, people will assume they should continue straight. They will be frustrated if that guess was wrong.
  • Return trips can be even more challenging from a wayfinding perspective, so help visitors find their way home too. The landscape looks completely different from a new direction (no matter how much drivers think they will visually remember their way in reverse). Sometimes the return route requires travelers to use different roads. As much as we may not want them to leave, getting lost on the way home will leave visitors with a negative last impression.

The following are common landscape cues or visual triggers that communicate “downtown” without requiring a sign:

  • Building density—density typically increases as we approach a downtown.
  • Setback—buildings typically move closer to the sidewalk as we approach a downtown.
  • Building height—buildings typically get taller as we approach a downtown.
  • Building age/quality—buildings typically get older and exhibit higher quality materials and details as we approach a downtown.
  • Pedestrian amenities—downtown commercial districts typically welcome pedestrians.
  • Sidewalks with furniture—downtown commercial districts typically have sidewalks whereas strip commercial developments don’t.
  • Pedestrian-scale lighting—downtown commercial districts typically have pedestrian-scale lighting while strip developments don’t.

Will you still need a wayfinding system once everyone has an onboard navigation system in their vehicles? To answer that question, we would need a better idea of what compels travelers to stray from the directions they get from their onboard navigation system. At the very least, we may need to place more emphasis on wayfinding once people get out of their cars. Do you need temporary wayfinding at large events? The answer to that question is usually yes.

Designing a Wayfinding System

Study gateways/entrances to the downtown. It is important to acknowledge that gateways and entrances exist wherever and however people enter downtown. We can’t sign them all, which is a case in point for the importance of landscape cues. However, we can identify primary entrances.

Map public attractions. Identify public attractions. Which attractions are most important to include on wayfinding signs largely depends on the location of each sign within the system. Each major decision point needs a sign, and each sign should provide a directional arrow toward the attractions reached from that location (up to a maximum of five). The trick is deciding which five.

Propose wayfinding sign locations and content. Gateways, vehicular decision points, and pedestrian decision points all require different styles of signs. A rule of thumb is to locate wayfinding signs at least at every major intersection, and at any other major decision point throughout the downtown and community. That said, don’t overdo it. Having too many signs can be as confusing as not having enough. Place signs at least 20 yards before the intersection so travelers have time to react after reading the sign. Place signs on the right-hand side of the road since travelers are conditioned to look to the right for information. Each sign should contain no more than five lines of text, which should be large enough to read from a block away (typically at least six-inch-high lettering). The best way to ensure legibility before investing in production is to create a mockup, set that mockup at one of your sign locations, and then drive by it. Each sign should also incorporate a logo consistent with all other downtown or community branding. A professional consultant (e.g., a graphic designer) can help with the design process. See also “Community Wayfinding" by Kathy Frazier, Kathy Moore, and Sandy Hanger, Main Street News, December, 2006.

Propose design improvements to enhance wayfinding. The biggest wayfinding weaknesses are often uncontrolled signage and lack of visual design cues. Collective sign clutter lessens the effectiveness of each sign. To be blunt, if everyone puts up directional signs, a person will have a hard time seeing any one sign. You can improve your signage system by first maintaining those signs that are necessary and second by removing unnecessary signs—addition by subtraction. When it is unlikely that visitors will impulsively change their route because they see a particular sign, then it may be more effective to try other ways of marketing an attraction. For example, attractions could cooperatively produce a brochure (to influence/assist people before a trip) rather than pepper the landscape with competing signs.

Reevaluate sign guidelines to ensure quality. This includes looking at criteria with respect to lit signs. In some cases existing signs need more lighting; in other cases, less. The most complex measure would be to evaluate land-use policies to ensure that development contributes positively to wayfinding (see discussion above about landscape cues or visual triggers that communicate “downtown”). Adjacent and overlapping municipalities may need to work together to evaluate land-use policies. It will be crucial for there to be a seamless transition from one wayfinding system to another (e.g. from downtown’s pedestrian system to the city’s system to the county’s system). In other words, the three systems must coordinate to pass travelers from one system to the next.