Initial impressions are important. How many of us have arrived at a school, hospital or suburban office campus and spent 15 minutes trying to find our way around? Imagine traveling for several hours to visit a school and not being able to easily find the parking area, or the building and room where orientation will be held. This type of first impression is disconcerting because visitors arrive frazzled, distracted, annoyed and late.

The way a campus looks — the architecture of the buildings, student amenities, strength of the faculty, quality of facilities, and friendliness of staff and students — all are part of first impressions. Yet, an important, often overlooked component of first impressions is how easily visitors can find their way around. There is one way to help alleviate confusing situations — wayfinding.

Proper planning

Wayfinding, the process of using spatial and environmental information to find one's way around, is a critical element of easily navigating buildings and campuses. A great example of wayfinding on a larger scale is Boston's Freedom Trail, which leads tourists to a series of historical sites around the city via a mini-trail of bricks embedded in the street. A successful wayfinding program incorporates at least four main elements: planning, signage, color/graphics and numbering schemes:

  • Planning

    Spending millions of dollars on a project, along with thousands of hours collaborating, planning, programming and designing, then waiting until eight weeks before the project is complete to begin thinking about how to move people throughout the facility, is fraught with failure. Thinking ahead is crucial.

    Proper planning not only allows an institution to meet the necessary criteria for a wayfinding program, but also provides an opportunity to introduce other benefits, such as reinforcing a school's brand and identity. Many campuses are a compilation of various building styles accumulated over decades. A new building's wayfinding scheme must fit into existing signage and graphics, color schemes and numbering systems. If a school or campus lacks a cohesive wayfinding program, a new building can provide the impetus for creating a campuswide approach.

    In the planning phase, existing campus standards are reviewed; the school's requirements are drawn out; the impact of codes, particularly ADA, are reviewed; special and atypical needs, such as signage systems and bulletin boards, are coordinated; and vendors are chosen. Architects, designers and sign manufacturers must work together to create an environmental statement that provides consistent clues for people to find their way to their final destination. Early involvement plus proper planning equals a wayfinding program that works integrally with the master planning, architecture and interior design of a project.

    The College of Saint Rose is an example of this. Its Albany, N.Y., campus is made up of almost 80 buildings of various styles and functions, including some Victorian homes used as residence halls. The college recently completed a School of Education building that houses office space, classrooms and teaching labs. The college included planning and budgeting for a wayfinding program in the initial project stages.

    This resulted in a better understanding of different functions that occurred within the building and the various audiences that would be using the facility — visitors, students, faculty and the community. It also provided an opportunity to understand the style and “vision” of the building.

  • Signage

    Signage is a great method to reinforce a school's brand and help you to communicate it in a consistent and intimate fashion. By bringing an institution's brand and signage together, a school reinforces its message in a physical form. It is the three-dimensional reflection of a college's values.

    An effective signage program needs periodic review and updating. Classrooms are updated periodically to accommodate new technology and teaching methods. The same is true for signage and wayfinding. What kind of message is a university sending if it has a new classroom facility with the latest computer technology and updated furniture layouts, yet the signs on the wall are just that: signs on the wall that you put up after the fact? Schools should empower their signage to give direction and also provide an aesthetic message that complements the project.

    After Saint Rose created a successful wayfinding program for one building on its campus, administrators established a new signage and wayfinding program for the entire campus — reinforcing its brand and projecting a consistent image. Because it is situated in an urban setting, there was a need to create campus boundaries using celebratory exterior signage. This was reinforced by individual exterior building identification.

  • Color/Graphics

    One area that is driven by necessary function but also includes additional application is environmental graphics. Environmental graphics help identify, direct, inform, interpret and visually enhance the environment through the use of color, shape, finishes and choice of fonts. The ADA drives the necessity of a specific level of contrast between text and background. This contrast can be used to create striking color combinations that meet codes and enhance the building environment.

    Color coding or simple graphic elements can reinforce the room numbering system. For those visually impaired, the addition of color, change in color, or a geometric shape that corresponds to the building or floor can ease wayfinding greatly.

    At Saint Rose, the interior graphics/signage design used for the new building is replicated throughout the campus. The same color is used on the top part of the sign, but the finish on the bottom is varied to complement each building's design.

    For instance, in the new School of Education building, a significant amount of cherry-stained wood was used, so cherry-stained wood was used in the signage. The Lima Residence Hall, which had been renovated, has a more contemporary look and feel, so black metal was used in place of wood.

  • Numbering

    Reviewing numbering schemes during the initial project stages is essential. Many projects simply incorporate the construction documents' numbering system for their signage. This can lead to confusion. Numbering for construction documents serves a different purpose than numbering for wayfinding. It is important to remain consistent when considering a project's numbering methodology.

For instance, all spaces on the first floor of each campus building should maintain consistent numbering: 100 to 199. A letter can be included to indicate a specific building. For example, if a student needs to go to Smith Hall for a class in room 103, it can be labeled S-103.

Traffic flow also should be considered. If a building has a simple layout, numbering also can be simple, with consecutive numbering from one end to the other. However, in a more complicated layout, spaces and numbers can be broken up into quadrants to create a sense of smaller scale.

All in all, mapping out a proper plan for a signage and wayfinding program from the beginning of a project can contribute to a positive experience for all who wander the campus for many years to come.

Styles-Lopez is senior associate/corporate graphic design manager, Einhorn Yaffee Prescott, Architecture & Engineering, PC.