Wayfinding Principles

The Top 3 Wayfinding Design Principles That Can’t Be Ignored

Published on: May 23, 2019

Getting lost in a hospital is a nearly universal experience.

At some point, we’ve all spent an hour wandering the floors of a nondescript healthcare facility, trying to find the tiny two-room suite where lab work is drawn. We’ve roamed parking lots, trying to remember where we parked the car after our second appointment of the day. Or we’ve gotten hopelessly lost somewhere between ophthalmology and obstetrics, trying to visit a friend in room 1045H.

From a visitor’s perspective, it only takes one bad experience for hospitals to gain a poor reputation for navigational difficulty. From a management perspective, this experience represents a serious problem for your visitor satisfaction scores and your organization’s overall brand.

If you’re looking for a way to help visitors navigate your facility with far less frustration, consider implementing a new wayfinding strategy.

The most successful healthcare facilities invest in architectural signage and environmental graphics that are designed based on key wayfinding principles and proven best practices. Use these principles in concert to produce a seamless navigation experience for every single visitor to your healthcare facility.   

Top 3 Wayfinding Principles For Healthcare Facilities

We often think of hospitals as huge, labyrinthine buildings with monochromatic hallways and complicated identification language. By implementing a thoughtful wayfinding program based on the following 3 wayfinding principles, you have the power to transform that image for your healthcare facility.

1. Consistent Language

Most wayfinding signs could be improved through the use of consistent, user-friendly language.

Terms like “Urology,” “Otolaryngology,” and “Gastroenterology” are almost unintelligible to the average hospital visitor—yet many facilities still title their departments this way. Even worse, some healthcare facilities have signs that show different names for the same location. To improve legibility, implement a system of alpha-numeric codes to refer to your departments and use it consistently throughout your facility. As a first-time hospital visitor, it’s far easier to remember and locate Department 1D than it is to find your way to “Nephrology.”

This strategy worked wonders for Kaiser Permanante’s Oakland Medical Center, a large medical campus with multiple buildings that often confused visitors. They initially named each building in honor of a different donor—which was a great choice for donor recognition, but a poor choice from a visitor’s perspective. By renaming their buildings in numerical order, the facility made it much easier for visitors to find their way.  

The principle of language also influences hospitals to incorporate universal graphic vocabulary into their healthcare wayfinding strategy. Clear icons can be understood by virtually all hospital visitors. By featuring a universal graphic vocabulary and alpha-numeric addressing on hospital signs, you also ensure that your wayfinding system caters to a multilingual audience.  

2. Practice Progressive Disclosure

Wayfinding Principles

In addition to having overly-complicated language on their signs, most healthcare facilities have far too many signs in total. Visitors don’t need five signs with ten arrows pointing to every single possible end destination when they exit the parking garage. They only need to know if they’re headed toward “Emergency” or not. Simplified signs should be located at strategic decision points.

The principle of progressive disclosure suggests only providing users with the information they absolutely need at every step of the journey. If someone needs to know which department, hallway, and room number to navigate to, the best practice would be to give them directional information in that order. Your visitors will make one decision at a time, one step at a time, and reach their destinations with far less decision fatigue.

This wayfinding principle helps you focus on the patient experience. How are visitors to your facility likely to be feeling when they arrive? If they’re stressed, grieving, anxious, or exhausted, a simplified sign system that holds their hand through every decision is the most effective solution.  

3. Strategize for Integrated Wayfinding

Wayfinding Principles

Signs are a crucial part of the solution for healthcare facilities. But facilities in the healthcare industry need more than signs to create a successful wayfinding program. Integrated wayfinding is the current gold standard for reaching visitors through multilayered forms of communication.

Integrated wayfinding starts with appointment reminders—physical cards, text messages, emails, or mobile app notifications. These appointment reminders come with orientation and directional instructions built in, which prepare visitors to navigate your facility before they even arrive. Both print and digital materials use the same wayfinding language and iconography that visitors will find in the built environment.

Apart from appointment communications and signs, the third element of integrated wayfinding is interpersonal interaction. Once you have a wayfinding program in place, it’s crucial that you train staff in the new system. By getting everyone on the same page from the beginning, you’re ensuring that patients who ask for directions are told the same answer from every staff member they speak to.  

Investing in Effective Wayfinding Design

Wayfinding Principles

From pre-arrival to departure, your wayfinding strategy dictates how a visitor will ultimately find their destination within your built environment. Will they get lost on the way to “Imaging”? Or will they confidently self-navigate by following the directions on their mobile device and noting the clear “X-Ray” signs along their path?

It only takes one time for a healthcare facility to make a fantastic impression on visitors. By investing in a thoughtfully designed wayfinding program, you can completely change the way people view the hospital navigation journey—and your organization as a whole.

When evaluating bids for an updated wayfinding system, make sure the company you choose is knowledgeable in the best practices of improved legibility, progressive disclosure, and integrated wayfinding.

The best environmental graphic design firms take things even further. You can expect a good partner to use wayfinding principles as a springboard to create a functional, aesthetically-engaging, and branded wayfinding system that will expand seamlessly to fit any expansions or building additions you may see in your future. Partnering with an excellent wayfinding design firm is the best way to ensure visitors can navigate your healthcare facility today, and tomorrow.


GNU Group is a wayfinding design firm that believes nobody should ever get lost in a healthcare facility. We’ve been pioneers in the design and implementation of signage and graphics for complex healthcare environments for over 40 years. Connect with our team to learn how you can leverage our tried-and-true wayfinding principles to make navigation seamless for all visitors.