Implementing a successful urban wayfinding program

Regions, cities and towns of all sizes and aspirations understand that the reality of today’s economy and the high level of competition for the public’s attention demand a clear and distinctive identity. Many are looking to urban wayfinding programs for that “one-two punch”: a stronger identity and clearer directional wayfinding for visitors.

Like a friendly face at the local visitors’ center, a well-designed brochure or an information-rich Web site, a wayfinding program reinforces the message that a city is well-planned, organized, safe and caring. If a visitor can easily find their way around, they are more likely to return and tell others of their enjoyable experience.

Building Consensus

For the tourism bureaus, city planning departments and local business improvement districts involved in developing these types of programs, they understand it is far more complex a process than just building and putting up signs at key intersections. The administration of the system is one of the first issues to be dealt with: Who gets listed on the signs? Where does the funding come from? How is the system going to be maintained? Design consultants assist clients with these issues and share formulas, best practices and lessons learned from other programs.

An ability to smooth the approval process is also a skill possessed by some of the best designers. From technical reviews by the State Department of Transportation or local traffic engineers to aesthetic opinions from Historic Review Boards, City Councils and local residents, a number of important organizations need to weigh in on the approval process. Building consensus among a large group of stakeholders is a critical talent. Clients can help navigate the internal workings of the city and public input process, while designers must listen carefully to the individual concerns of each group and be sure to incorporate the most appropriate comments into each iteration of the design.

While large-scale destinations like national monuments, major art museums or performing arts centers are obvious members of a wayfinding program, it’s the second tier attractions like small historic sites, lesser known botanical gardens or boutique shopping districts that get the greatest benefit. A wayfinding program can provide these destinations with a highly visible (and low cost) marketing tool.

Craig Berger, Director of Education for the Society of Environmental Graphic Design, who has helped cities like Philadelphia, Miami Beach and Washington, D.C., establish wayfinding programs, agrees that cities large and small have hidden gems waiting to be discovered. “While larger destinations have advertising budgets and various means of promotion through different media, such as magazines, radio and television, it’s the smaller nonprofits that rely on the sign programs as another form of communication,” says Berger. “Research has shown that wayfinding programs increase visitation at the secondary destinations.”

A Sense of Place, Direction

The design of a wayfinding program should be approached holistically and considered within the overall context of both the place and its image. As the signs are a single element within an overall communication package and brand message, they’re marketing not only the community but also the environment in which they are placed. Pre-conceived ideas, formulaic approaches or off the shelf products do not lend themselves to capturing the character of a place and its individuality.

In Asheville, N.C., designers played up the destination’s brand as the launching pad for the design of its wayfinding system. This included not only the use of the identity colors and signature graphics, but also the inclusion of local artists for the production of decorative finials and the use of famous quotes about Asheville on the back of the signs.

Cate Marvill, tourism product development manager with the Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau says, “We view our wayfinding program as a natural extension of our brand, key to enhancing the visitor’s experience in the area. The brand is more than our identity. It’s the spirit of Asheville and the promise we have made to our visitors; to welcome them and invite them to have a personal, enriching experience.”

The design of an urban wayfinding sign program balances this creative aspect of the process with engineering criteria for legibility, reflectivity, typeface selection and color and copy contrast. Standard technical requirements for vehicular signs include; 4" high copy for roads of 25 mph or less, reflective background and copy, 7' minimum to the bottom of the sign panel and the use of approved sans serif fonts. As pedestrian signs and kiosks have less technical criteria and scrutiny from traffic engineers, these signs include up to 10 messages on double-sided panels and the size of copy should be within the 1"-1½" high range, so it cannot be read from a car.

Gateways, located at the entry to the city, offer the biggest opportunities for designers to express both creativity as well as the client’s identity. These points of arrival should not be thought of as simple “Welcome” signs, but should also incorporate lighting, landscaping and public art as opportunities to create memorable landmarks. Each of these elements can provide a sense of arrival, capture the character of the town and set the tone for the visitor’s experience.

The Nuts and Bolts

Most urban wayfinding programs, because of their complexity, size and maintenance requirements, are made of standard signmaking materials. These materials must be durable and easily replaced or expanded. Unlike a campus, retail development or interior space, urban wayfinding programs are placed in non-controlled environments like city streets or rural roads and are typically cared for by the city’s Public Works Department. Vandalism is inevitable, with graffiti and stickers being some of the most common daily issues, and annual maintenance budgets can run 10 to 15 percent of the initial construction cost. Maintenance is usually a shared responsibility between the city and stakeholders.

Fabrication methods and processes are typical to most sign fabricators, and maintaining the original design intent and aesthetic of the program is generally met at a pretty high level. The most difficult aspect of the program comes during the installation of the system. The sequencing, coordination and unforeseen conditions that are prevalent in a city create the toughest scenarios.

Kevin Cherashore of MSD Visual has installed programs in Jersey City, N.J., and Bayonne, N.J., and is currently working on a system in Augusta, Ga. “The urban environment is by far the most unpredictable,” says Cherashore. “Coordination between the city engineers office, traffic department, local roadwork and other streetscape projects all play a part in maintaining a cohesive installation process. Once location mark outs are completed in the field by the project management team, the utility mark outs must be called in, with a window of 10 days for excavation, so a strategic and organized install program is mandatory.

Quality project management, detailed record keeping and strategic planning maintain the project’s success. All that being said, Urban Wayfinding programs are some of the most rewarding jobs we do. If run properly, they can be profitable, they are great projects for the company resume and being part of the revitalization and enhancement of a community is a great reward in itself.”

A standard timeframe for the fabrication and installation phase of a program is four to six months, depending on the quantity of signs, with nine months not being out of the question for the larger, more complex programs. Fabricators without urban wayfinding experience often underestimate the level of effort necessary for the installation. A good rule of thumb for installation includes planning to excavate and pour four to six footers a day and, once footers are ready, eight to 10 signs can be installed daily. The key is to start the mark-outs, utility checks and excavations as early as possible so that problems or relocations can be addressed quickly.

With interest in wayfinding programs booming across the country—everyone from small town Main Streets to tourism-focused regions—it seems that people have learned the secret. Well-designed urban wayfinding programs can help create a sense of place, guide visitors through the region, and elevate a city’s identity.