A good signage system can perform multiple functions. On the most basic level, it provides effective information and direction for people to find their way around a downtown, a building complex, park, or other public space. It can also encourage learning experiences; create and maintain an image for a place; communicate rules; and provide a sense of place and local pride by incorporating history or cultural details.

Signs can meet specific needs and target certain areas. But their location is key. Placing signage in conjunction with other amenities such as benches, cafes, restrooms, and phones, or places where paths cross, can create mini-”destinations” or places-within-a-place. Elements that are “triangulated” in this way have a bigger impact together than they would separately, and allow users to attend to several needs at the same place. When they are well-located, signs can help to create a comfortable and social place where people can relax and spend time.

Below is a step-by-step guide to help non-professionals participate in the process of developing and designing a signage system, as well as information on the range of signage types.

Clarify your goals

Decide on the aims and purposes for the signage system you want to develop. Determine what functions the signage is to serve, whom it is to serve, and the kinds of information you want to communicate.

Survey existing signage conditions

Build upon what already exists by using what works well and improving on that which does not. Using existing elements or variations upon those elements can build users’ familiarity with signs and their meanings. A survey of the existing signage may include:

  • reviewing standards and guidelines
  • evaluation studies
  • surveying the physical signs by type, condition, and placement
  • examining incident and accident records to determine what new types of signage may needed
  • interviewing staff concerning information relevant to the place (see next tip)

Understand users

  • Walk along the paths frequented by different types of users: visitors, tourists, residents, workers, families, younger and older people, wheelchair users, bicyclists, frequent or infrequent users, etc. Make observations on these different types in order to “see” the way people make decisions and how they enter and move through a place.
  • Talk to people about areas, facilities, or features that they find difficult to locate; ask them about the overall image of the place, and difficulties they might have in using it.
  • Interview staff about information-related problems that they have noticed, including conflicts (such as uses or activities that may conflict with maintenance, safety, or other issues); conflicts between types of visitors; vandalism; recurring problems and questions; sponsored programs and activities; and staff information needs. Circle these areas on a map.

Understand aspects

Consider and identify any unique aspects of the history or culture in and around the site that might contribute to a sense of place, nurture local pride and stimulate learning about the place. This could include historical events, elements of architectural interest, or natural features.

Outline guidelines

Assemble the information you have gathered and organize it both in writing and in a plan. Include information on signage goals, audiences, and tone of the information to be conveyed.

Develop a master plan

Once you have completed the above steps, you will have a wealth of information that can be developed into a master plan, and will be of great help in working with a graphic designer or signage consultant.

A master plan should include signs for information (both regulatory and interpretive), wayfinding and orientation, and identification purposes. It should also lay out the types of signage that are needed, along with text and symbols. Using the guidelines and the written issues you have developed, organize and prioritize information requirements into groups of signage by type. Develop text and symbols for new signs and revise messages for existing signs as necessary.

Test, experiment, and evaluate

Do brief tests of the signage you have developed by talking to users about their experiences with the signage, as well as how the messages are phrased, designed, and located. Evaluate the effectiveness of the signs according to the goals, purposes, and guidelines that you developed. Depending on the responses you get from users, experiment with how messages are phased, how signs are designed, and where they are located.

Signage types

  • Maps at entry points, within the boundaries of a place, and along set distances of pathways can help to increase and enhance users’ knowledge, curiosity and interest about a place. Maps not only can help visitors guide and direct themselves, but highlight points of interest as well.
  • Information Kiosks/Bulletin Boards can help users who are only familiar with part of a place that they frequent, and unaware of its entire range of features or facilities. Often users are also uninformed about events and activities, as well as renovation or management plans. Information/ bulletin boards can serve as an outreach tool to better inform them about what’s going on.
  • Educational Signs can be conceived as a fun way to engage people in the interesting or unique aspects about a place. Consider the various audiences and their interests, as well as their reasons for being in a place that would complement the type of educational signage to be developed.
  • Directional Signs posted intermittently serve to help people keep their bearing, and also feel located and secure. This type of signage can make use of landmarks or other points of interest in performing its function.