Directions to Library Wayfinding

Directional and informational signs guide patrons into and around the library

March 20, 2012


The word “wayfinding” has multiple meanings, but the one that really matters to librarians comes from the field of architecture and is concerned with how human beings orient themselves and chose paths within a built environment.

Signage is one of the most important tools for wayfinding. If there is one truism about library signage, it is that most of it is not very good. Understanding the mistakes that lead to bad signage is the first step on the road to creating good ones. Libraries need to recognize that signage is a powerful communications medium with as much—if not more—impact than more high-profile and often more valued electronic and print media. The backbone of signage in any building should be built on a unified architectural signage system that enhances wayfinding and identifies spaces within a facility.

While architects will typically have control over building identification and regulatory signage, library staff should have considerable control over directional and informational signs.

Directional signage

Three considerations stand out when it comes to directional signage:

1. Use minimal directional signage

It is not always better to have more directional signs than fewer, and it can actually be worse. In an entirely new space, resist the temptation to overload it with directionals; in an existing space, seriously consider taking down all the existing directional signage and starting over with the mindset of making wayfinding work with the fewest possible signs.

2. Use bump points to help with directional signage placement

Bump points are those places in any building where people routinely stop or slow down as they decide which way to go next. One good strategy in a new or remodeled space is to open with low-cost temporary directional signage and wait until you have determined the bump points before installing permanent directional signage. Set a date by which the temporary signage will be replaced with permanent signage, and be sure not to allow temporary signage to remain in place so long that it starts to look ratty. The quality of temporary signage must be reasonably good. Printed signs on foam-core backing make for acceptable temporary signage; anything on sheets of paper or handwritten is unacceptable.

3. Consider the best placement of directional signs

There remains the question of where directional signage should go so that people actually see it at the moment of need. To determine placement, it is helpful to discover through observation where bump points are. North wall of west wing? South wall of east wing? Double-sided and suspended from the ceiling? No manual can answer these kinds of questions, but careful observation of how people behave at the bump point, combined with consideration of every option, go a long way toward finding the best solution.

Informational signage

Informational signage tells building users where they are and what they can (or cannot) do. Some informational signage, such as room identification signage, is also regulatory. Informational signage can also be directional. Say that a copier room is located in the middle of a long hallway. A perpendicularly mounted, double-sided sign reading Copier Room is informational in that it identifies the space, but it is also directional in that it can be seen from either end of the hall, thus guiding library users to the copier room. Most of the signage mistakes mentioned in the sidebar involve informational signage, so it is crucial to think carefully before deciding whether an information sign is needed.

A special type of informational signage is donor-recognition signage. Whether it takes the form of generic engraved brass nameplates on a walnut plaque or elaborate tributes that move into the realm of high art, donor-recognition signage should not hinder wayfinding or library operations.

There is no single, simple solution for creating a library space that allows users to successfully find their way. Eliminating obstacles to wayfinding cannot do it all. A building designed with wayfinding in mind is a great asset, but even that cannot win the battle all by itself. These elements need to be combined and harmoniously tuned to allow successful wayfinding. And finally, even in the best-tuned building, some users will still need, from time to time, human help to findtheir way.

Bad signals

Want to create a hostile library environment? Follow these simple steps:

  • Put up as many signs as you can that contain words such as “no,” “must,” “forbidden,” “only,” “prohibited,” and “do not.” And do not neglect the good old circle-slash symbol.
  • Use plenty of italics, underlining, and bold-faced text. Better yet, use all three at once.
  • Do not scrimp on exclamation points!!!!
  • If you splurge on color, be sure to use plenty of red!!!!

What are the core components of poorly designed and low-quality signage?

  • The sign, or the lettering on it, is the wrong size—either too small if meant to be read from a distance, or too large if meant to be read close-up.
  • The sign is too wordy to take in at a glance.
  • The font is not highly legible.
  • There is not enough negative space around the lettering.
  • There is poor contrast between the color of the lettering and the color of background.
  • The meaning of the wording or symbols used on the sign is unclear.
  • The sign is made from cheap materials, i.e., paper.
  • The sign is poorly mounted: crooked, hung on a uneven surface, or attached with tape or thumbtacks.
  • The sign is placed where it is difficult to see or not placed at the point of need.
  • The sign is so old it has become shopworn or information is out of date.

DONALD A. BARCLAY is deputy university librarian at the University of California in Merced, where ERIC D. SCOTT serves as director of administrative services and head of access services. This article was excerpted from their 2011 Neal-Schuman book, The Library Renovation, Maintenance, and Construction Handbook .