City wayfinding systems

Why City Wayfinding Systems Should Do More Than Just Point the Way

Published on: July 30, 2019

Navigating downtown urban centers can be tough for the directionally challenged. Very few cities were planned as well as Chicago—with wide thoroughfares and straight, numbered grid lines that make perfect sense both on a map and in person. Plenty of us have gotten hopelessly lost on the streets of crowded cities, relying on tiny street signs and local passers-by to get us where we need to go. 

In response, major cities like Los Angeles and Boston have invested in large-scale city wayfinding systems to help tourists and residents alike navigate with ease. But these signage programs serve a greater purpose beyond improved navigation. Branding, business development, and placemaking are all valuable goals of a successful wayfinding program. If you’re looking to transform your city with a powerful multi-purpose solution, wayfinding is the way to go.    

The Multi-Purpose Value of City Wayfinding Systems

The primary purpose of every city wayfinding program is to provide safe passage for pedestrians and vehicles through an urban area. Signage consultants utilize extensive research on vehicular and foot traffic patterns in order to assess the needs of an area and identify crucial locations for signage. A well-designed city wayfinding system instantly makes a destination more accessible. 

However, wayfinding is also a powerful and often-overlooked way for a city to make contact with its visitors and residents. Each directional sign and map kiosk becomes a valuable touchpoint that can be used to accelerate placemaking and drive users to your preferred locations. Signage programs, therefore, serve a number of additional purposes, including the following: 

Wayfinding systems can help a city REBRAND. 

Cities are always fighting to differentiate themselves from the seemingly-endless suburbs. Every municipality needs residents and businesses to move in, drive an increasing tax base, and for people to enjoy their localized experience. Wayfinding is one of your best tools for this kind of placemaking.

City wayfinding systems

The City of Mountain View discovered the power of wayfinding when they chose to rebrand the North Bayshore business district. The neighborhood was known as a 9-to-5 destination for tech workers who flooded into Mountain View during the day and made a mass exodus at night—until the city planned to transform this location into a ‘complete neighborhood’ with residential, retail, and public spaces surrounding the corporate hubs. 

The new wayfinding program will proudly announce the character of the neighborhood and help rebrand the area with a completely new feel. It will also increase awareness of the new amenities the district has to offer. It will encourage workers to shop in North Bayshore and make it their full-time home.   

Wayfinding helps to UNIFY a city’s identity. 

city wayfinding systems

You always want signage to be consistent with the character of a city. But when your city includes multiple distinct identities, it can be tricky to find the right balance. The City of Davis, California needed to find a way to incorporate branding between the vibrant downtown area and the UC Davis campus immediately adjacent. They chose to unify their identities with one all-encompassing wayfinding program which cohesively linked the two under the proud banner of Aggie blue and gold. 

Downtown Davis’ new directional signs were designed to help users navigate smoothly between the university setting and the thriving downtown area. With modern detailing, clear text, and a signature bicycle wheel motif, these signs were an aesthetically pleasing addition to the visual landscape. They also unified and announced Davis as a youthful, active, and welcoming city full of pride for their resident university. 

Wayfinding signs help a city DEVELOP economic growth. 

Finally, signs aren’t just about the subjective “feel” of a place—they can actually contribute to real, measurable business development goals. Plenty of municipalities bemoan the fact that huge amounts of traffic pass right by every day on major highways and never get to experience—and fund—the smaller business districts along the way. The City of San Leandro faced the same challenge and used strategic wayfinding signs to create its own solution.

Occupying prime real estate between I-880 and I-580, San Leandro implemented a creative way to entice vehicular traffic into their downtown business district as well as to corral pedestrian traffic from nearby BART and AC Transit stations. They installed new gateway wayfinding signs to alert drivers to the promising delights of the downtown area and help them locate parking. Orientation and directional signs helped pedestrians quickly find their way to shops and restaurants. Over time, this city wayfinding system significantly increased traffic to the downtown San Leandro area and helped local businesses flourish.  

What It Takes to Implement a City Wayfinding System

A lot goes into a city wayfinding system. Of course, the program needs to be built on an aesthetically pleasing design that reflects the character of the place. All programs aim to fulfill the purposes of placemaking, branding, and growing local cities. But so much goes on between the design phase and the implementation phase of a wayfinding project—and each of these steps is crucial to the overall success of the program.

Perhaps more than any other industry, civic projects are strictly bound by building codes and city regulations. The process of securing approval for a strategic wayfinding program can be extensive and exhausting. Budget also plays a major role in the final success of a wayfinding system. Some cities go through multiple rounds of RFPs before settling on a solution that’s as effective as it is cost-effective. 

The best way to mitigate these challenges is to partner with a signage consultancy firm with plenty of experience creating successful city wayfinding systems. Not every company can secure variances and set an accurate budget from the very beginning of a project, but you want these kinds of people on your team. With the right design firm, you’ll be able to bypass the potential administrative pitfalls of a new signage investment and focus on creating a wayfinding system that does much more than point the way. 


GNU Group is a wayfinding design and implementation firm with over 30 years of experience. We’re proud to have created city wayfinding systems for a wide range of municipalities in the Bay Area, including the three projects highlighted above. If you’re looking to invest in wayfinding signage that will help users navigate, explore, and fall in love with your city, connect with our team.