Signage, literacy and wayfinding, part 1

By Gordon Rugg

Here’s what a typical piece of signage looks like to about 10% of the people visiting a public place such as a hospital or a school.

blackletter signage

About 10% of the population have significant reading difficulties. They might be able to figure out what a sign says, given enough time. They might not.

Here’s what a typical piece of signage looks like to another significant proportion of visitors.

grainy sign3

A lot of people have visual problems; this is particularly likely to be an issue in places like hospitals, which people with visual problems attend for treatment. Signage can also look like this to people with good eyesight if the lighting is poor or the weather is bad.

So what can you do about this problem? There are some simple, cheap solutions which aren’t as widely known as they should be. That’s the topic of this article.

banner Some classic types of landmark: Images from Wikimedia Commons

Reading signage is like reading manuals. People tend to do it as a last resort, when other approaches fail. That raises the question of which other approaches people prefer to use. The answer is that there are four main methods that people use for nonverbal wayfinding:

  • General sense of location and direction
  • Landmarks
  • Lists of directions
  • Maps

I’ll discuss the first three of those strategies below, with examples of how each strategy can be supported by nonverbal signage. I won’t discuss maps, because those are very different from the first three, and are a substantial topic in their own right.

I’ll focus on outdoor wayfinding, for brevity; most of the same general principles apply to indoor wayfinding, which I’ll discuss in a separate article. Both outdoor and indoor wayfinding aids can be complemented via the design of appointment letters and of online information, which I’ll discuss in a future article. First, though, I’ll discuss a feature of human memory which has useful implications for wayfinding.

Recognition versus recall of places

People usually have a much better passive memory (recognition) than active memory (recall). For instance, if you ask someone to name the countries of the world (using recall), their performance is likely to be poor; however, if you ask the same person to look at a list containing real and fictitious country names, their performance in identifying the real names (using recognition) will usually be much better.

This effect applies particularly strongly to memory for images. Most people have remarkably good recognition memory for scenes that they have seen before. The article below is a fairly typical example. The authors showed each of their participants 2,560 photographs at a rate of 10 seconds per photo; the participants successfully identified over 90% of those photos up to 3 days later.

This skill can be very useful for nonverbal wayfinding. If you show prospective visitors images of their destination and/or of landmarks along the way before they arrive on site, then there is a very good chance that they will recognise those points when they are on site, and will be able to use them to find their way. The sections below describe ways of incorporating this principle into site design.

General sense of location and direction

One way of helping people to know where they are within a site is to vary some features within the site systematically across the site. Even if people aren’t consciously aware of this, there’s a good chance that it will help them subconsciously assess where they are, and whether they’re heading in the right direction.

The schematic diagram below shows how this can be incorporated within landscaping across a site. The landscaped rocks get systematically bigger from left to right across the site, and the plants are of systematically taller types from bottom to top of the site. For clarity, I’ve only shown this along two edges of the diagram; in practice, this principle would be applied across the whole of the site, not just the edges of it.


Here’s another way of achieving the same effect, by varying two aspects of the same landscaping feature, namely size and colour of rocks. This time, I’ve shown this principle operating across the entire site.


In the example above, the rocks used as landscaping features are systematically larger from left to right across the site, and are systematically darker from bottom to top of the site.

A significant advantage of this approach is that it can be incorporated at minimal cost into existing site features such as flower beds and other decorative features. It can also be done gradually, as part of routine maintenance.

This approach helps people to orient themselves, and to recognise whether the general look and feel matches images that they have seen before visiting the site. It is also helpful for the next main wayfinding strategy, namely use of landmarks.


A commonly used type of landmark is the dramatic work of abstract art, like the one below.


As a statue, it’s a fine example of its type. As a landmark, this particular example has disadvantages. Landmarks are most helpful when they have the following features.


The site should ideally have at least one landmark which is visible from anywhere on the site, as an orientation feature. In practice, this often isn’t possible because of buildings blocking the line of sight, but it’s usually possible for different sections of the site each to have their own visible landmark.

People often use landmarks as a convenient way of getting close to their destination without having to spend time and effort reading signs. This is useful in situations such as trying to find your way from a car park to a building some distance away, which may not be signposted from the car park. This strategy is also useful when there is a dauntingly large number of signs for other destinations along the route.

Asymmetry in appearance and/or location

If the landmark looks the same from all sides, this will probably cause problems for visitors trying to orient themselves. If, however, the landmark looks different from each side, and/or the landmark is placed at a non-central location on the site, then visitors can use this asymmetry to help orient themselves.


In principle, a visitor should be able to see at least one landmark from any point on the site. It’s possible to check this systematically with a combination of graph theory, map colouring, and trudging around the site; I’ll write this up formally at some point. The quick and dirty way of doing this is to go to the key points of the site, look round for landmarks, and note any points where no landmarks are visible.

Multi-sensory features

It’s a good idea to include non-visual features within a landmark, particularly to help visitors with visual impairments, but also as a supplementary navigation aid to all visitors. Examples of non-visual features include the sound of splashing water from a fountain, or the smell of lavender from a flower bed in summer (with the usual caveat about not having lavender too close to paths because of bees).


If there are two or more landmarks on the site which can be confused with each other, then they will be confused with each other. A common result is visitors turning up late for appointments because they were led astray by the wrong landmark. This applies both to deliberate, planned landmarks and to “accidental landmarks” where visitors treat a feature of the site, such as an unusual window, as a landmark even though it wasn’t intended to be one. It’s a good idea to check for this, and to pay attention to any cases where visitors report having been misled by a confusing landmark.


This issue is important when giving directions to visitors. If there are several large abstract bronze statues on the site, then it will be difficult to tell a visitor exactly which of those statues is the landmark that they need to use. If, however, there is only one statue being used as a landmark, and it is figurative (e.g. Athena holding a spear in the air) then there isn’t much risk of confusion; an added advantage is that it’s fairly easy to mime this to an overseas visitor who doesn’t speak your language.

Lists of directions

Lists of directions may be written, or remembered, or spoken (e.g. in response to someone asking the way to somewhere) or a combination of written, remembered and/or spoken. For all of these, clearly describable and clearly identifiable landmarks are extremely useful.

There are various well-known problems with lists of directions, such as what happens if the list is lost, or if one of the landmarks isn’t there any more, or what happens when the helpful person giving directions gets to the third “then you take the first right” and the visitor’s memory gives up.

There are a couple of ways of tackling some of these problems that aren’t as widely used as they should be.

Showing landmark images

As described above, human beings are usually very good at recognising things that they have seen previously. You can turn this to advantage by incorporating wayfinding images into documents that the visitor sees before coming onto the site. For instance, you can include an image of the building they will be visiting as a watermark in the appointment letter that you send them.

Building directions into landmarks

A surprisingly high proportion of people (about 20%) have trouble telling left from right.

This has obvious implications for giving directions.

One solution is to have landmarks at each decision point (e.g. crossroads) so you can tell the visitor which landmark to go towards, as opposed to telling the visitor to turn left or right (which is also hard for anyone to keep track of in a long list of directions).

Another solution is to use landmarks which point in commonly used directions (as in the case of the Athena statue, where the spear could point towards a frequent destination).

Further thoughts

This article is a first skim over a big, fascinating topic. It’s one of those topics where there’s a lot of relevant theory available, and a lot of cheap, easy ways of improving the situation, but for some reason the theory and the improvements aren’t as widely known as they should be.

This topic has numerous links with issues such as user-centred design, which I’ve discussed in previous articles, and to which I’ll return in later articles.

I hope you’ve found this article useful.

Notes and links

You’re welcome to use Hyde & Rugg copyleft images for any non-commercial purpose, including lectures, provided that you state that they’re copyleft Hyde & Rugg.

There’s more about the theory behind this article in my latest book, Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese:

Previous related articles on this blog:

Links for Wikimedia images:

The clip art icons used in this article are from the site below:


One thought on “Signage, literacy and wayfinding, part 1

  1. Pingback: The Knowledge Modelling Book | hyde and rugg

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