Finding Your Way: the Surprisingly Complex World of Wayfinding

This is a guest blog post by Paige Colburn, Planner II at City of Huntsville Long Range Planning, and her colleagues, whose Wayfinding project was funded by an America Walks Community Change Grant this year. 

I had no idea how much I didn’t know. 

Wayfinding seems simple, right? Get people from point A to point B. You know where both points are. You know the routes you think people should take. You’ve plotted the safest routes for bikes and pedestrians, the fastest routes for cars, and you’re ready to put some signs in the ground, right? 

Not so fast. Wayfinding is so much more than it seems. There is an entire lexicon of new vocabulary words to learn and a range of questions that must be considered once you get into wayfinding. For example:  

Decision Points

    • What is a decision point and why do I need a sign there? 
    • How many decision points are there between point A and point B? 
    • How many decisions might a person have to make at each of these points? 
    • Are there really only two destinations: A and B? 
      • People might need or want any number of additional destinations between A and B, such as parking or perhaps bathrooms? 
    • Okay, wow, there really are a ton of decision points between any two locations on a map. 
    • We need more signs!

woman and man standing next to Wayfinding signs they developed and implemented.








Compliant placement of signs

      • How many sign blades can a post hold before one of the blades is too low to accommodate pedestrians walking underneath?  
      • Can a single bracket hold two sign blades if those blades are pointing in opposite directions? 
      • Can people read the signs from cars or while walking? Or both? 
      • Did someone seriously plant a tree / put up a light post / mount a giant construction sign right in front of my new wayfinding sign?

This is all before you begin thinking about design issues. The easiest decision, on the surface, might be what colors, styles, and shapes to make your wayfinding signs. You want them to create a sense of place, fit in with the nearby area, and be appealing, perhaps even artistic. You need to make the signs accessible for people who are illiterate, do not read English, and those with visual impairments or developmental disabilities. The public, your elected officials, engineers, and planners will all want input into what the design of the signs will be. There are cost issues with choosing more elaborate signage. Many local sign companies do not have the required equipment to screen print multiple colors onto a single sign, for example, or any complex logos.  

We realized about midway through our project that we’d be putting out two different types of signs. When we applied for the Community Change Grant from America Walks, we had expected to purchase two or three signs that matched the blade shape, colors and dimensions specified in our existing Downtown Wayfinding Master Plan. However, when we analyzed the route and decision points more closely, we realized that one destination was actually outside the Downtown Wayfinding Master Plan’s geographic area and separated from Downtown by a major roadway.  As a result, a downtown wayfinding style sign would not be appropriate. In the end, we purchased one downtown-style wayfinding sign and mounted it on an existing decorative pole within the Downtown district. Two, more generic and less expensive style signs which came straight out of the US DOT Road symbol signs guide book, were posted on standard posts further along the route and just outside the district.  These signs more closely blend with other signage in this area, yet seamlessly continue the wayfinding directions and complement the nearby Downtown district signage. 

woman and man standing next to Wayfinding signs they developed and implemented.


The process of making these decisions, involving all the key players, working with two different sign printers, and multiple city departments extended the anticipated duration of our project. Rather than being complete and installed at the beginning of the summer, our signs were installed in August, during the first week of the new school year. The wait was worth it! The weather continued to be lovely and several outdoor events continued to be held in the weeks and months after the wayfinding installation. Upon sharing images of the new wayfinding on social media, we received nothing but positive feedback and a call for more projects like this one.  

Despite the various challenges you can expect to encounter regarding scope, design, and other details, your wayfinding project is still worth undertaking! People appreciate wayfinding signs. Any wayfinding effort creates a very physical representation that you know people who walk and bike  are out there using your infrastructure. Wayfinding lets them know that you see them and that you’re trying to help them get around with the added benefit of actually helping them to do so!