The best kind of direction is the kind you don’t know you’re being given, but rather following involuntarily as if the idea was your own.
That’s not a high brow quote from an obscure philosopher - it is simply the reality of well-designed signage. Wayfinding signs created with this in mind aim to use text, colour & icons in such a way that users don’t need to stop and examine the entire sign, top-to-bottom, left-to-right. Instead, they instinctively know:
Which part of the sign they need to engage with
How to interpret that information as it relates to them and
How to act upon it
This article researched the intricacies of subconscious reasoning, and how that in fact informs how be behave, more so than conscious thought. Pouget asserts that “You don't consciously decide to stop at a red light or steer around an obstacle on the road. Once we started looking at the decisions our brains make without our knowledge, we found that they almost always reach the right decision, given the information they had to work with."
The article goes on to discuss how our brains will monitor a scenario for a period of time until they have gathered enough information to satisfy our “confidence threshold”, at which point our subconscious brain provides our conscious brain with a definitive answer. The key to the tests conducted was the subjects repeatedly witnessing the same set of circumstances until they could confidently make predictions as to the outcome. The time taken to reach the confidence threshold is individual and circumstantial, however the process remains the same.
So how does this relate to successful wayfinding signage? When directional signs are designed & engineered in a considered way, you can leverage the user’s prior experience of signage interactions to essentially ‘fill in the blanks’ of what your sign is communicating.
Take this example:
Instantly, you know what this means. No text, no indication of the actual amenity type - even the graphics themselves are a crude impression of a man & woman. However, these simple shapes tell you exactly what you can expect upon arriving at the facility. Why? Because you’ve seen it a thousand times before, and your subconscious brain is already confident in what you need to think & do in relation to this sign.
Using this same principle, wayfinding signage executed well should say just as much with just as little. To that end, wayfinding signs are generally organised into 5 categories: identification, information, directional, regulatory and interpretive signs. These signage types each have their own purpose and rules, usually resulting in a consistent ‘look & feel’. Users will know instinctively as they approach the sign whether it contains the information they need, what part of the sign relates to them, and how this sign is going to influence their subsequent actions.
Let’s look at these 5 categories in the context of park signs, to better understand how they differ and the needs they each meet:
1. Identification Signs
As the name suggests, these are purely to denote the name of a park, walking track or other prominent destination. If the user is seeking out one of these signs, they want to be confident they are in the right place. They might be travelling at speed - i.e. in a car - or might want to know if this is the right place before they commit to entering - i.e from a distance. Therefore, these signs should remain uncluttered and simple, ideally indicating a name only. In smaller examples that might be seen closer up - i.e. on foot when entering a picnic area within a larger park - it would be reasonable to include icons indicating the facilities available. But this would be the limit of the sign’s contents in order to keep to its primary objective.
2. Information Signs
These are reserved for dense quantities of information - i.e. maps, location descriptions, permissible & prohibited activities, hazards, facilities, etc. - observed from a short distance away and for a more substantial period of time. We use this kind of park signage because we need more than just direction, and are willing to invest more time in consuming the contents.
An understanding of the information hierarchy is vital - you need to know the kind of information the user is after, from most important to least, as this will directly influence:
What features are emphasised in maps
What text needs to be in a larger font
What facilities need to be noted and
The importance of other factors like distance, gradient, environment & landscape.
In an environmental signage context, a mountain biker would be more interested in the gradient of a path & distance between intersections, whereas a family would want to know the proximity of playground, BBQs and amenities.
3. Directional Signs
Similarly to identification signs, these wayfinding signs work best with minimal content as they are usually interacted with in transit or at speed. From an installation point of view, they should be easy to pass by as they are not a point of reference as seen in the example of Information Signs - the user doesn’t go to the sign to collect the information they need, it’s done as they move past it.
4. Regulatory Signs
These signs simply communicate what you can & cannot do. These too should be simple, uncluttered and clear for maximum impact, especially in the instance of notifying the user of a hazard. Signs alerting the user to danger are even more subject to the principle of ‘communication at speed’. This split-second recognition is crucial, especially in a park signage context where unstable surfaces, potential interactions with wildlife or hidden dangers like rips & currents are most certainly on a need-to-know basis. Regulatory signs also rely heavily on well designed icons. They should function independent of text, again relating back to our subconscious brain recognising shapes & colours from previous scenarios.
5. Interpretive Signs
Interpretive signs are more closely related to information signs in that we use them to consume large amounts of content, both graphical & textual. These generally offer more creativity and are designed to be enjoyed - in a park context, they may tell the story of an historical site, or explain the behaviours of an endangered species. Interpretive signs often enhance the user’s experience of an environment, allowing them to gain insight into a location and an understanding of its lifecycle whilst appreciating the setting itself.
Overall, an understanding of what the user’s needs are and how our brains process information can lend itself to intelligently designed & implemented wayfinding signs. Above all, good signage should be interpreted subconsciously. For those seeking to have wayfinding signage created, it’s paramount to work with a company that understands all these principles.
At Barrier Signs, we have a well-established history of developing, designing, manufacturing & installing some highly successful wayfinding signs, especially in the context of environmental & park signs. We work with strict adherence to style guides, and can create custom signage manuals in consultation with both our design & manufacturing teams.
Need park signage? Or perhaps wayfinding signs for an urban environment? Get in touch and see how we can help you find your way.
Hope we can chat soon!
Meredith Barrier Signs Pty. Ltd.
About the Author: Meredith is part of the Marketing Team at Barrier Signs. With a background in graphic design within marketing teams of both large & small enterprise, she is an avid reader of tech reviews, marketing blogs and is a little bit crazy about new flat design trends.