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How Signage and Wayfinding Influences Traveling

May 6, 2021 Resources

One of the first things a person should do in unfamiliar territory is to look around for a sign to help orient themselves. Many cities use a type of signage called “wayfinding” to help people — specifically travelers and tourists — familiarize themselves and navigate through foreign areas. 

When it comes to practical solutions for wayfinding, there are a variety of durable signs using metal letters across many cities, as well as markers for schools, subdivisions, and offices. Aside from bringing in foot traffic, places such as offices need signage; different businesses may even need to deploy lobby signs to let visitors know if they are in the correct unit. Each of these applications is an example of wayfinding.

Wayfinding can help visitors find their way to the historical landmarks, attractions, city centers, and more — easing travel anxiety and helping them feel more comfortable in navigating a foreign location.

What Is Wayfinding?

Wayfinding refers to information systems that guide people through a physical environment and enhance their understanding and experience of the space. Using strategically placed directional, identification, and warning signs, travelers can find vital navigational details. Travelers can find their way to landmarks and attractions, but also essential buildings such as hospitals, hotels, and public transit hubs. 

Once in these buildings, more strategic wayfinding signage will help direct you to primary locations such as the ER of a hospital, the concierge at a hotel, or to find your gate for a flight. Virtually everyone has experienced the guidance of wayfinding signage, but may not have noticed the strategy behind the scenes of a city’s environmental design.  

Essential Wayfinding Features

To be effective, wayfinding signage needs to be concise, clear, and coherent:

  • Concise: signage should provide just enough information to be helpful, without becoming overwhelming or complex.
  • Clear: signage should use images, graphics, or text strategically to communicate as effectively as possible. Ideally, it will communicate simple messages (announcing the name of a location, the path to a destination, “you are here,” a warning or a rule) allowing for a simple design.
  • Coherent: to be useful, wayfinding signage must be appropriately sized, lit, and accessible. If it is placed too high, low, or out of the way, its effectiveness may be diminished.

Wayfinding’s Role in Environmental Design

Environmental design seeks to create spaces that will enhance the natural, social, cultural, and physical environment of particular areas. Through architecture, ecology, psychology, sociology, and urban planning, strategists can express the identity of a city. This effort includes analyzing how the citizens within the city interact with its environment and continually striving to improve processes.

Wayfinding plays a large role in helping a city’s inhabitants not only navigate and find information about the buildings and POI in a city, but also navigate the city’s entire environment as well. This includes finding routes to destinations, tracking their location when en route, and identifying when they’ve reached their location. This navigation can all be done with the calculated placement of signage that marks important places within the city. Not only is this helpful for citizens, but it is extremely beneficial for tourists as well.

Wayfinding Applications for Travel

Signage is foundational for anyone hoping to become familiar with their surroundings. Knowing tourists are at a disadvantage in foreign cities, environmental designers and urban planners understand the value of wayfinding in helping travelers get to where they want to go. If a city wants to be considered a thriving tourist destination, strategic wayfinding signage is essential for the safety, peace, and confidence of navigation for their visitors. 

Imagine being dropped into a foreign airport with no gate signs, arrival/departure screens, or arrows pointing to baggage claims — and you only had 40 minutes to get to your plane. It may make you anxious to even think about it. Aside from signage to find routes around a city, wayfinding plays a large part in cutting through the confusion of otherwise complicated operations.

Public Transit

Busses, trains, and subways can be difficult to navigate in your city of residence. For travelers, this difficulty can be magnified tenfold without wayfinding. Maps with highlighted routes, arrows pointing to specific vehicles, and screens telling you when your train is going to take off are instrumental in helping travelers reach their destinations.


Large airports can be heavily populated and have several processes involved — security screening, baggage check, and boarding. To make things go more smoothly, ample amounts of wayfinding signage are used to help direct everything. Digital signage can show flight schedules, updates, and cancellations. Additional signage shows security restrictions and processes. Some signs point you to your gate, terminals, restaurants, and even service dog relief areas.


Hostels, hotels, and resorts can be much easier to find with wayfinding signage. Once there, you can find the check-in station, view offers and events, services, maps, and videos of the estate. Without wayfinding resources, this may be next to impossible — especially if you don’t speak the native language of the place you are visiting. 

Navigation Around a Foreign City

As a tourist, it could be difficult to find the Colosseum from your hotel if Rome didn’t have any signs pointing you to the ancient amphitheater, memorial plaques, various “you are here” maps, and clearly marked pedestrian/vehicle routes to get there. This goes for finding almost anything in a foreign city — hospitals, markets, government buildings, fuel stations, and much more. 

Wayfinding is unassumingly essential for both cities and travelers. Without this signage, tourists may be subjected to crime, inadequate medical care, and be unaware of access to provisions and lodging — and may choose to leave the city. Cities that strive to provide tactical wayfinding signage can reap the benefits of a thriving tourist industry and the knowledge that its best assets are proudly on display.

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