Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs

If you build it, they might not come, especially if they don’t know about it or how to get there.  Your community may have some great public spaces and places to visit but without good signage people may never get to enjoy them.

The Project for Public Spaces (PPS) suggests that good signage provides effective information and direction for people to find their way around a downtown, a park, or other public spaces.  Signage can 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.

Where are you? Where are you heading to? How can you get back? Signage can provide a way to get from place to place. It can inform people of their surroundings and can guide them in the right direction.

The design of signage needs be approached in a holistic manner and address the legibility and readability for all users. When signage works well, it tells us where we are and it helps us to get where we want to go. When it doesn’t work well, we spend hours trying to get to where we want to go and sometimes just give up and never make it to our destination.

In addition, as noted in an article in Slate, “businesses and municipalities alike have realized that well-oriented people are calmer, happier, and more likely to spend money (and plan return visits) than people who are lost. Investing in a good wayfinding system has real financial rewards.”

So, it may be time to take a look around the public spaces in your community to see if these places are easy to find and easy to get to.

PPS has come up with some guidelines to think about when developing or evaluating signage for a site or project.

Clarify your goals.
Decide the goals and purposes for the signage system you want to develop. Determine what you want the signage to do, who it is to serve, and the kind of information you want to communicate.

Survey the 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 existing standards and guidelines; conducting interviews concerning information relevant to the site and region; surveying existing signage, its types, condition and relation to local topography and conditions; and examining incident and accident records to determine what special signing needs may be relevant to develop.

Understand issues, problem areas and perceived decision points along a visitor’s paths into and through the site.
Talk to people about areas or facilities they find difficult to locate, about the site’s image, and difficulties they have in getting around the site. Make observations of different types of visitors (e.g. the elderly, children, families, handicapped, etc.) in order to “see” the way other people make decisions and how they enter and move through the site.

Identify unique aspects of the history of the site.
Consider and identify unique aspects of the history of the site and surrounding area that contribute to a sense of place, nurture local pride and stimulate learning about the place.

Outline general program guidelines for the overall information system.
Make use of the information you have gathered to decide on signage goals, determine who your visitor audiences are, and consider the tone of the message you want to set. It is helpful to do this both in writing and in a plan of the site.

Develop a master plan for the overall informational system that includes signs that are informational, directional or that help people orient themselves.
The master plan lays out the types of signage needed, the text and symbols for the signs incorporating the guidelines and information you have collected. Using the plan you have developed and the written issues, organize and prioritize information requirements into groups of signage by type. Develop text and symbols for the new signs and revise messages for the existing signs where necessary. Consider ways in which the history of the site can be incorporated into the signage text and symbols. Include messages for special user groups such as the physically handicapped, among others. Develop lists of messages for all sign types, such as directional, informational (regulatory and interpretive) and identifying signs.

Test, experiment, and evaluate the effect of the signs you have developed.
Do brief tests of the sign types you have developed to see if they are effective. Experiment with how the messages are phrased, how the signs are designed, and where the signs are located as a way to determine more effective signage. Evaluate the effectiveness of the signage according to the goals and purposes that you developed and the general program guidelines and goals you set during your signage development by talking to visitors about their experiences with the signage as well as how the messages are phrased, designed, and located.

Locating Signage.

The location of signage is an important consideration in communicating the message. Maps, kiosks, and other elements, in addition to conventional signage, also function as signs. Placing signage in the same areas with other amenities such as benches, cafes, restrooms, and places where paths cross can create mini destinations or places. This idea is called “triangulation” because the elements functioning together have a bigger impact than they would separately. Signs can also be placed in front of interesting or unusual flora, fauna, trees or other natural features as a way to encourage visitor interaction and engagement with their surroundings.

Here are some types of signage to think about.

Different types of signage serve different purposes. Park maps, information or bulletin boards, educational signs, and directional signs are examples.

Maps at entrances, within the boundaries of a site and along set distances of paths and trails can help to increase and enhance users’ knowledge, curiosity and interest about the site. Maps not only can help visitors guide and direct themselves through the site, but also highlight places of interest to visit.

Information/Bulletin Boards
Often visitors are familiar with one or more sections of a place that they visit but are not familiar with other aspects of the site and its facilities. In addition, visitors are often uninformed about events, activities, renovations or development plans. Enclosed information/bulletin boards can serve as an outreach tool to better inform visitors about the site.

Bulletin Board for a new dog park courtesy of the Cape Cod Association of Realtors®

Educational Signs
Educational signs such as those that highlight or point out specific trees, paths, flowers, or other elements of a natural environment can also be conceived as a fun way to engage people in interacting with the natural environment.

Directional & Trail Signs
Directional signs posted intermittently along an area, especially in natural areas, not only can serve to help people keep their bearing, but also to feel located and secure.


Wayfinding is a type of information system that guides people through a physical environment and enhances their understanding and experience of the space.

NAR’s Placemaking Micro-grant can be used to help promote and market downtowns, trails, parks and other public spaces.  Funds can be used for wayfarer/wayfinding signage, kiosks and trail markers.


  1. Great article! M. Moskerintz did a fine job describing the pro’s of a well-designed wayfinding system. The illustration pictured at the end of the article is from our master plan created for the city of Decatur, Alabama. To see how we developed it and to see the final installs of this award-winning plan, visit our new site at