Creating Best Practices for Public Wayfinding Systems


Wayfinding systems are critical for getting around town, but a lack of dialogue and standards resulted in inconsistencies in environmental graphics and other wayfinding elements across the United States. To develop standards that diverse groups could agree upon, the Sign Research Foundation and the International Sign Association turned to research.

The Challenge

As U.S. cities continue to evolve in response to global changes in business, technology, and communication, the need for effective wayfinding systems and signage in our communities also continue to increase. Wayfinding elements include directional systems, directories, regulatory signs and monuments that shape our public spaces. Wayfinding influences vehicular and pedestrian movement, including navigation within buildings and through urban environments. It supports the pedestrian experience, providing valuable direction to important destinations that residents and tourists alike seek within a city, including transportation hubs, commercial centers and emergency services. Moreover, wayfinding is an element within complex indoor environments such as hospitals, shopping centers, and public transportation systems.

Successful wayfinding systems utilize familiar design cues including color, typography, shape, logo, material and nomenclature to signal information to users. Architects, urban planners, graphic designers, and sign manufacturers design wayfinding systems into our world, while city and code officials provide oversight through regulation. Yet, communication between designers and regulators has historically been inconsistent and, at times, combative.

The Sign Research Foundation, with support from the International Sign Association, developed a research effort to identify best practices from across the United States in order to establish a wayfinding model that can be adopted by communities of all sizes. The research is intended to inform legislative and regulatory issues around signage codes and standards, promote economic development, and enhance public safety.

The Approach

Initially, SRF recruited a diverse advisory committee, including city officials, sign fabricators and other multi-disciplinary participants to discuss and create a framework for the research project. A call for case studies returned examples of wayfinding systems, which were then reviewed and analyzed by peer reviewers for best practices. To support a scientific approach, SRF created a survey mechanism that helped the reviewers assess the case studies with regard to the initiative’s intent and desired output. SRF was able to filter the reviewed case studies against specific metrics. Focus groups were conducted in various cities with residents and tourists to collect additional feedback from the public perspective.


SRF published Urban Wayfinding Planning and Implementation Manual as the comprehensive guide to urban wayfinding, from planning to implementation.The manual offers guidance on financing, managing the regulatory framework, administering the design process, understanding common design issues, and managing technical systems. Another report, Digital Wayfinding Trends: Lessons Learned from Museums, Healthcare, and Transit Experiences, addresses more specific building typologies and the integration of digital wayfinding experiences to improve navigation and user experience through complex public spaces.

SRF created a public-facing Research Library on its website to share additional best practices, including research on sign codes, wayfinding, traffic safety, placemaking, sign design and placement, brightness and illumination levels, as well as other topics related to world-class signage systems. Additionally, the SRF has established research grants of up to $50,000 per research project to foster the continued development of this critical research.

Revisions to the Urban Wayfinding Planning and Implementation Manual have been completed, with updates and new case studies added.


When a traveler flies to a new location, they become dependent on signage for orientation and direction to understand their surroundings. Initially, they look for signs that point them toward the baggage claim and ground transportation. When they arrive at their hotel, they rely on signage to navigate to their room. When they explore the city, they seek out signage that directs them toward amenities and tourist destinations. Clear, legible signage is critical to navigating public spaces and cities.

When you consider this example in the context of a crisis, such as a natural disaster, the need for signage amplifies tremendously. Communities of all sizes must have signage in place that effectively communicates to the public, including residents and visitors, how to safely move throughout the city and reach their destination. Moreover, as communities continue to develop or establish new areas of tourism and commerce, wayfinding will prove critical to unleashing the desired economic benefits.

“The psychology of wayfinding helps people safely navigate destinations that they’re new to. Signage is an invisible infrastructure most people don’t notice until they need it.” – Sapna Budev, Executive Director of the Sign Research Foundation

“This work helps communities promote economic development, enhances public safety and helps them build brand awareness for their communities.” – Sapna Budev, Executive Director of the Sign Research Foundation


Sign Research Foundation, Digital Wayfinding Trends: Lessons Learned from Museums, Healthcare, and Transit Experiences,

Sign Research Foundation, Urban Wayfinding Planning and Implementation Manual, 2020,