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Effective Outdoor Wayfinding

Shelley Widhalm is a freelance writer and editor and founder of Shell’s Ink Services, a writing and editing service based in Loveland, Colorado. She has more than 15 years of experience in communications and holds a master’s degree in English from Colorado State University. She can be reached at shellsinkservices.com or shellsinkservices@gmail.com.

Installing a sign in the outdoors takes some planning and creativity to capture the attention of drivers glancing at the roadside and pedestrians going by buildings at obviously slower speeds.

Either way, the messages on the signs have to be read quickly, resulting in additional requirements that indoor signs do not have.

“The biggest problem I have with wayfinding that I find from a sign design perspective is people want to put too much on a sign,” says Jim Brown, exterior products manager of Takeform, a wayfinding consulting and fabrication company in Medina, New York, in business for 20 years. “They don’t need all the information on a sign; it could be detrimental.”

Brown says a line or two often is better than a paragraph of information.

“The sign needs to be functional. It has a job to do, and you need to let it do it,” Brown says. “You have to determine where you want to get people, where you want people to go.”

One way to do that is to start with an exterior site survey of the area where the sign will be placed, says Bill Freeman, vice-president of architectural sales for Howard Industries, a sign manufacturing company in Fairview, Pennsylvania.

“The best practice is to view the site as a ‘first-time’ visitor,” Freeman says. “Once all of the site data is collected, you are able to recommend signage placement and messaging.”

Freeman recommends assessing traffic patterns for both vehicles and pedestrians where applicable, photographing the area of the sign’s placement and making note of any points along a travel route where navigational decisions need to be made.

The decision points can include a T in the road, an entrance to a property or the outside of a building, Brown says. Exterior wayfinding signs may give directions, offer a directory or present a site plan with a list of the buildings on the property, he says.

The Content of Exterior Wayfinding Signs

The content of the signs needs to help with the decision process, taking into account things like viewing distance versus the speed of traffic and if the signs are geared to an audience of drivers, bicyclists or pedestrians, Brown says. The design for a roadway sign with higher speed limits will require larger letters for that proper viewing than a sign for a lower speed area.

“There are legitimacy charts to determine the height of the letters versus the speed you’re going,” Brown says.

The font is an important consideration, as is what the copy will be made out of, Brown says.

“Obviously, you want to use a font that’s legible,” he says, recommending avoiding fonts with fancy script or that are hard to read. “For the actual body of the sign giving directions, you want to be able to read it, as opposed to having it just look pretty.”

For optimal readability, signs geared to drivers should be placed perpendicular to the roadway in direct view of their line of sight, Freeman says.

“Proper copy size, layout design and color combinations ensure successful visibility of any wayfinding sign,” he says. “Keep wayfinding messages clear and concise and choose contrasting color combinations that promote legibility.”

The Sign’s Shape and Size

The size and shape of a sign, such as if it is rectangular or square, are other important factors, says Natalie Whited, vice-president of marketing at Orbus Exhibit & Display group, a division of SignPro Systems, a trade show supplier and manufacturer in Woodridge, Illinois. 

“Size is a key question,” Whited says. “It would depend on the environment. … What kind of environment and needs do you have? You almost have to have a needs analysis done in order to suggest the right solution.”

When creating the sign, getting the dimensions to be precise is critical for the installation, Whited says.

“If they are off a little bit, they can screw everything from the presentation to the end environment,” Whited says.

The height of the sign may be limited by town or city code, or the sign may need to follow a minimum size requirement in the case of a stop sign or parking sign, Brown says.

“It is very important for sign companies to know the zoning requirements and restrictions of municipalities where they plan to install wayfinding signage,” Freeman says. “Before designing a wayfinding signage plan, research sign size restrictions and placement requirements.”

Considering the physical area where signs will be installed also is important to retain their visibility factor.

“Since exterior wayfinding signage is placed in an outdoor environment, signs can become quite large and impressive in appearance,” Freeman says. “Architectural design elements from nearby buildings can be incorporated into their designs, creating an aesthetic unity and overall captivating and interactive experience for the viewer.”

Takeform does this by designing exterior wayfinding signs to fit with the environment and the customer’s identity, reflecting a building’s architecture or a company logo, Brown says.

“It’s more aesthetically pleasing,” Brown says. “The whole idea is to tie everything together.”

Another factor in sign placement is a customer’s need for modularity, especially for organizations that undergo constant change, such as colleges, universities and hospitals, Freeman says.

“Offering a signage system that can be easily updated is a strong selling point for these types of clients,” Freeman says, recommending avoiding flush face signs with routed copy that does not lend well to alterations. “Signs with removable panels and vinyl copy are more economically sound design options.”

The Sign’s Material

Decisions about the use of materials also help with determining a sign’s design.

Most exterior wayfinding signs are made out of painted aluminum or aluminum composite material, both durable, affordable materials, Brown says.

“Aluminum is very affordable. It’s very easy to work with,” Brown says.

The material is lightweight, does not rust, is easy to bend and fabricate, and can hold paint well, Brown says. ACM comes in diverse colors and patterns, and the finish is part of the material, as opposed to aluminum, which has to be painted, he says.

ACM is graffiti resistant, easy to clean and resistant to scratching, Brown says.

Freeman recommends using an automotive-grade polyurethane paint for long-lasting sign finishes and adding a clear coat to further extend the longevity of the finish. If eco-solvent inkjet printed graphics are used, they should have an ultraviolet protective laminate to protect against the elements, he says. For cut vinyl graphics, he recommends using high-performance rated materials.

“You need to be able to see them at night,” Brown says, adding that the signs could be illuminated internally or externally with lights pointing toward them or by using reflective vinyl.

Signs made out of plastic can deteriorate, and over time metal can rust, Whited says.

“If this is a permanent exterior solution, the dealer will want to sell aluminum, not steel, for durability and lifespan,” Whited says.

As a final consideration, signs should be raised above the ground in areas that get snow or have lawns that need mowing, Brown says.

“The most important thing with exterior wayfinding is getting the person where they need to go in the most clear, concise way possible, and that pretty much sums up wayfinding,” Brown says.

As such, signage is needed for both the exterior and interior environments, Whited says.

“You have to carry from the exterior to the interior the same wayfinding philosophy to guide visitors to where they need to go,” Whited says. “The message has to be consistent from the exterior to the interior to provide a good experience for someone coming to that place.”