1. Wayfinding: Why it’s More Than Just Signs

Person looking at a warning sign
A guest contribution by Patrick Eley and Alan Stevenson.

When we think about sense of place, we don’t often think about wayfinding.

We might think about architecture, landscaping, furniture or exhibitions and while those are all powerful influences, signage and wayfinding are among the most fundamental factors in how we perceive place.

A sign can be delightful, it can be sombre, and it can be designed in a way that corresponds to the historic surroundings of a grand museum or a sleek tech campus. A sign can encourage us to explore or tell us when we’re not wanted — to KEEP OUT!

Sometimes it’s not just the presence of signs that contributes to our sense of place, but their absence too. When we can’t find our way, we start to get worried. We risk flicking the switch to one of the most fundamental human fears: the fear of being lost.

On the flip side, when we can move through a space with total assurance, we’re more likely to walk away with a good impression.

To get a sense of what a sign can do for a place, just look at the Hollywood sign. The 13-metre letters have transcended their purpose of telling us where we are, they’ve become a symbol of ambition and success –  the American dream itself. That’s a pretty powerful association for an area of LA.

On the other side of the Atlantic, London street signs show us when we’re moving from one part of the city to the next. For a good example of this, head down to the Borough of Westminster, where the street signs created in 1967 have become a visual shorthand for far more than the roads of the capital alone. The designs have been emulated across other boroughs and reproduced in every tourist shop north and south of the river. They are part of what we think about when we think about London.


Contributed by Patrick Eley and Alan Stevenson from DNCO an introduction to Chapter 1 of their new book Straight Forward: How Wayfinding Works and Why Strategy Matters.

Order your copy here.