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Wayfinding Basics

03 February, 2023

Facilities of all sizes can benefit from wayfinding; it helps shuttle users between areas to arrive safely at a destination.

Learn more about the history of wayfinding, relevant regulations, and the four types of wayfinding signage with this infographic.


The following is a transcript of the Basics of Wayfinding infographic:

Wherever we go, and however we get there, WAYFINDING HELPS US NAVIGATE a confusing world.

Around the globe, airports, highways, malls, hospitals, and other facilities use systems of signs, signals, and other visual cues to shuttle users from "Point A" to "Point B" in the most efficient manner possible.

Wayfinding can help employees, vendors, and visitors navigate your workplace, as well.

Here's a brief look at the importance of wayfinding-and how it can help improve efficiency and organization.


Wayfinding has been around as long as people have migrated and moved. Here's a brief history of wayfinding and how it's used in cultures around the world.

3000 B.C.: Polynesia takes shape in the western Pacific Ocean. Polynesians would later develop a reputation for expert wayfinding by reading the sun, moon, waves, stars, and animals (such as birds in flight) for navigational clues.

300 B.C.: Rome constructs a transportation network that eventually swells to more than 50,000 miles of paved roads. Stone pillars built alongside the roads denote destinations, distances, and mile markers.

1908: Henry Ford's Model T rolls off the assembly line, many automobiles accessible to the average consumer and creating the need for wayfinding on public streets.

1935: The first edition of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) (now maintained by the Federal Highway Administration) becomes an American Standard, establishing regulations for roadway signage.

1960: Kevin Lynch coins the term "wayfinding" with the release of his book, "The Image of the City." The book examines how people interact with their environments as they navigate a city.

1964: Pictograms are part of wayfinding at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Twenty sport-specific and 90 general information pictograms communicate with audiences from around the world.

1976: The Society for Experiential Graphic Design (then the Society for Environmental Graphic Design) forms to encourage clear architectural signage and visual communication in a changing, more connected world.

Wayfinding Rules and Regulations

There are few federal rules and regulations for wayfinding systems; most such decisions are left to individual facilities. Nevertheless, several agencies and organizations offer resources for planning an effective wayfinding system.

OSHA - 29 CFR 1910.37

OSHA maintains basic regulations for floor marking, which can be a critical component of a wayfinding system:

  • 29 CFR 1910.22(b)(2) states, "Permanent aisles and passageways shall be appropriately marked," but the standard sets no guideline for floor marking colors, unless floor marking is used for preventing physical injuries.
  • 29 CFR 1910.144-the agency's standard for outlining safety color codes-notes that red and yellow are designated safety color codes for marking physical hazards.
    • Red is the basic color for fire-related hazards, emergency switches, bars, and buttons on hazardous machines.
    • Yellow designates caution and marks physical hazards, such as stumbling, falling, and "caught in between."

OSHA - 20 CFR 1910.37

OSHA's rules for communicating egress routes in the event of an emergency can be found in 29 CFR 1910.37. Here's what to know when accounting for emergencies while designing a wayfinding system:

  • Every exit must be visible and marked by a sign reading "Exit," and the line-of-sight to an "Exit" sign must be visible at all times.
  • The word "Exit" must be legible in lettering at least 6'' (15.2 cm) high, and the main lines of the letters in the word "Exit" must be at least 3/4'' high.
  • If an exit path isn't apparent, signs must be posted along the route, indicating access to the nearest exit.
  • If a doorway or passage along an access route isn't an exit, but must be marked "Not an Exit" (or with a similar message). It may also be identified by its actual use (such as a closet or restroom).

Federal Highway Administration

The Federal Highway Administration's MUTCD offers standards for roadway signage. These are required for public roadways, but also serve as guides for developing signage for parking lots, garages, and other private thoroughfares:

  • NO TURNS: Messages should be as brief as possible
  • STOP: Use at least 1'' of letter height per 30 feet of legibility distance. If a sign should be seen from 60 feet away, letters should be 2'' or taller.
  • Keep abbreviations to a minimum, wherever possible.
  • Don't use punctuation marks. Minimize confusion by using only letters, numerals, and hyphens.
  • Use hyphens, not forward slashes, to separate words.
  • The name of places, streets, and highways should begin with upper-case letters, followed by lower-case letters.

International Building Code
CHAPTER 10 (Means of Egress)

The International Code Council (ICC) develops codes and standards for the design and construction of buildings. Chapter 10 of the ICC's International Building Code speaks to means of emergency egress as part of a broader wayfinding system:

  • Directional signs toward exits must be placed at elevator landings and in areas of refuge (places where people unable to use stairways can gather to await instructions or assistance during emergency evacuation).
  • Emergency evacuation instructions must be posted in areas of refuge and exterior areas for assisted rescue.
  • Stairway identification signs must be at least 18'' X 12''. Letters identifying an interior exit stairway and ramp must be at least 1 1/2'' tall.
  • The number designating the floor level must be at least 5'' tall and located in the center of the sign.
  • Other letters and numbers must be at least 1'' tall.
  • Signs must use a non-glare finish, and characters must contrast with the sign background.

Stairway Identification Signs Other letters of number 1'' Min. 5'' Min. 1 1/2'' Min. Dimension 18'' x 12'' Min.

4 Types of Wayfinding Signage

In the July 2008 issue of American School & University Magazine, wayfinding expert Ernest Dwight broke down wayfinding signs into four groups: identification, directional, informational, and regulatory signs. Here's a look at each type of sign:

  1. Identification Signs
    Identification signs don't provide directions; rather, they identify where the reader is, and point out specific landmarks or structures. AN IDENTIFICATION SIGN...
    • Points out restrooms, breakrooms, conference rooms, and other common destinations
    • Provides "You are here" designations on maps at entryways
    • Signals entrances and exits outside building and at facility borders
  2. Directional Signs
    Directional signs keep people moving toward their final destination; they typically appear at junctions or anywhere someone might look for directions. A DIRECTIONAL SIGN...
    • Helps visitors find receptions desks, offices, loading docks, and other common destinations
    • Lets users in an elevator lobby know what locations can be found on that floor
    • Provides directions at junctions and in busy corridors
  3. Informational Signs
    Informational signs supplement the trip with useful information along the way. AN INFORMATIONAL SIGN...
    • Shows which parking spots are reserved for visitors or employees
    • Warns of the presence of forklifts and other heavy machinery
    • Alerts users when conference rooms or meeting areas have free Wi-Fi
  4. Regulatory Signs
    Regulatory signs inform users of regulations and requirements that are in place. A REGULATORY SIGN...
    • Reminds users to wear proper PPE, such as hearing protection or face shields
    • Alerts drivers of speed limits and parking restrictions
    • Denotes designated smoking areas and signal where smoking is not allowed
    • Warns about areas that may be off-limits