Wayfinding Illuminates the Path Through the Pandemic

“Please keep your distance at all times!”

“Follow the one-way route!”

“Wear a mask!”

“Sanitise hands before entering!”

The likelihood is that in the last year you’ve encountered many forms of signage and wayfinding with instructions fixed to pavements, walls, floors and countertop surfaces due to COVID-19. When the pandemic struck, governments and businesses scrambled for quick and easy solutions to signage and wayfinding.

As a result, wayfinding has been thrust into the public realm and consciousness in a way not previously seen, becoming ever more critical for the safety and health of the world’s citizens. In fact, wayfinding has taken on an increasingly more crucial role in determining our choices in these heightened times. According to the findings of a European study of over 2,500 shoppers from Roland DG, an overwhelming majority of shoppers – 75% – are more aware of in-store signage than before the pandemic.

Going further, poor signage and wayfinding is a tangible and reputational risk to business. More than 40% of UK shoppers have stopped visiting stores that have unclear signage on social distancing and more than 40% of shoppers say the number one emotional impact of poor signage is the feeling that businesses are not taking their safety seriously enough.

With the development of and release of vaccines, there are indications that there is light at the end of the long, gruelling tunnel of the global pandemic. What is clear, is that when people do return to previous habits and environments, our perspective on the world and patterns of behaviour, will be forever changed. The question is, how has wayfinding reacted to those changes, and as an industry, what can wayfinding learn from world’s crisis response?

Be clear and concise
In his piece featured by Reuters back in May, Chris Girling, our Head of Wayfinding, talked us through how tone of voice and clarity for wayfinding and signage is pivotal for understanding and absorbing a message: “people want to feel safe, reassured and at ease. If you can do that, they are in turn going to be more likely to shop, feel relaxed and return. The message needs to be clear and consistent … and absorbed.” Messaging with fewer words is easier to digest and understand at first sight. Experts from the Outdoor advertising industry, whose business is predicated on the success of how easily advertising messages are grasped on its billboards and street furniture, recommend no more than 5 to 7 words with five to 10 seconds to make the message stick. These lessons have been assimilated into the public realm like never before and have been pivotal to the success of health warnings to society.

Communicating quickly has been a real driver for signage and icons or pictograms have become an essential part of having to communicate messages that have never had to have been conveyed before. As Rosie Smith, CCD’s Senior Wayfinding Designer asserts: “their use has not only made messaging easier to understand but has gone some way to softening the, at times, frightening messages that we’ve had to comprehend, in a simple and easily digestible way.”

Wayfinding signage - London 2021
Wayfinding signage - London 2021

Be big and bold 
In a world where we’re used to being bombarded by up to 5,000 messages a day and with rapidly changing confusing government advice causing widespread uncertainty, messaging during the pandemic needs to be effective, first time. Sadly, there was no nationwide solution, with the signage systems being disjointed and inconsistent. Central government could have taken a leaf out of the only previous temporary signage system rolled out on a nationwide basis designed to unite the UK: The 2012 Olympics. The signage was eye-catchingly clear and immediately distinct from other wayfinding. In the same way, big and bold stands out better and we’ve seen an evolution of messaging with high-contrast colours being gradually adopted to grab attention by government and business owners alike.

London Olympics wayfinding, 2012
London Olympics wayfinding, 2012

Despite not being commonly used in wayfinding, floor markings have come to the fore during the pandemic, with widespread stenciled markings being used in public spaces (see below) with mixed degrees of success. Prior to the recent events, we’ve seen some creative and effective examples of floor markings, such as the HereEast wayfinding in London, designed by dn&co, (below) which greeted visitors with oversized letters, numbers, and icons rendered in bright orange; directed by lines on the floor that mimic digital circuitry; and guided by towering totems.

HereEast wayfinding signage - dn&co
HereEast wayfinding signage - dn&co

In a similar way, with thorough research undertaken prior to installation, CCD harnessed floor markings as part of a COVID-19 wayfinding system to give clear, directional and informative wayfinding throughout cultural institutions like Cutty Sark (see below images), Royal Maritime Museum in Greenwich, and Westminster Abbey.

The pandemic has brought these concepts to our supermarkets, shops, parks, and outdoor spaces with varying degrees of success and clarity. The pandemic has highlighted how the concepts behind this type of signage can assist in the user journey through a space but there’s no doubt that cheap solutions like floor vinyl that can peel off or can be hidden by customers in busy environments, may have benefitted from further thinking before being implemented.

Be more accessible
One area that the pandemic has exposed in a perhaps more negative way, is that most Covid-19 wayfinding systems remain far too visually-based and no way near inclusive enough. As Emily Yates, CCD’s Head of Accessibility affirms: “the vast majority of current pandemic wayfinding is almost exclusively visually-based, which is ineffective for those that are visually impaired. This pandemic has shown us that wayfinding needs to cater for a greater variety of diverse accessibility needs.”

An excellent example of how wayfinding can go further in this way is the work produced for the German Centre for Neurodegenerative Diseases prior to the pandemic, designed by Stuttgart’s Büro Uebele Visuelle Kommunikation, which took inspiration from the plight of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer sufferers typically recall colors more easily than other signifiers, so the interiors are defined by 100-foot-long brushstrokes in calming shades of blue and green, which guide patients and researchers to each department.

This pandemic has shown us that wayfinding needs to cater for a greater variety of diverse accessibility needs.

Emily Yates - Head of Accessibility, CCD
German Centre for Neurodegenerative Diseases
German Centre for Neurodegenerative Diseases - Büro Uebele Visuelle Kommunikation

Showing the way forward
The Covid-19 pandemic has illuminated wayfinding’s usefulness to the public in times of crises and that’s why at CCD, we’ve carried out all external COVID-19 wayfinding work pro-bono, including a set of free social distancing pictograms, still available here. Recent times have also inadvertently acted as a testing hotbed for its utility, innovation and best practice. We believe there’s no doubt that the design industry will continue to learn and evolve through these extreme times, in order to be as relevant and critically important to our lives after the pandemic, as it is during.

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Oliver Bennett-Coles

Oliver has over 15 years worth of global marketing experience, managing marketing and new business teams in advertising, media, brand strategy and fast-growth software companies.

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