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Signs and Wayfinding for COVID-19 and Beyond

By Brian McFadden

Many thought the COVID-19 crisis would be over in a few months. Instead, we’ve seen the pandemic persist; case numbers rise, fall, and rise again. Businesses still need to protect their employees and customers, but it’s time to take a longer view of the protective steps that we take.

Signage and wayfinding systems got a lot of attention early in the pandemic, as organizations scrambled to find effective systems to provide information, instructions, and boundaries. These same tools were used to protect people before COVID-19, and they can help in the future as well—no matter how uncertain it may be.

When planning a wayfinding and signage system, there are three powerful tips that will improve results every time: identify your question points, give useful answers, and build consistent patterns.

Identify Question Points

Before you can provide answers, you need to know what the questions really are. What information do people at your workplace need to know? Where will they be when they need that information? These combinations of “what?” and “where?” are question points. Each question point is an opportunity to provide information with a sign or other visual signal, ensuring that the answer is right where it’s needed.

For example, visitors may need to use a specific entrance when they arrive at your facility. In that case, visitors will need to know whether a given door is the right one, and they’ll need to know before they actually enter. A common solution here is to mark each door with a sign, either “Visitor Entrance” or “Employees Only.”

Give Useful Answers

Once you’ve identified a question point, you’re ready to start providing useful answers. The “Visitor Entrance” and “Employees Only” signs are an excellent starting point, but they won’t provide a complete solution.

Imagine a visitor has arrived at one of your employee entrances. With your new sign, they know that this entrance is not for them—but now what? You’ve stumbled upon another question point: your visitor is standing at an employee entrance, and needs to know where they should go to find the visitor entrance.

A good way to solve these wayfinding problems is to think about the action that a person should take when they get to a question point. Then, provide simple instructions that will make that action easy. For example, instead of just marking doors as “Employees Only,” add a directional arrow and text to point visitors in the right direction.

Build Consistent Patterns

As you plan out your useful answers, keep in mind that each individual sign is part of a larger system of wayfinding and signage. Human brains are good at recognizing and following patterns. Ignoring patterns will make your wayfinding system confusing and difficult to maintain, but using patterns well can make the system simpler and more effective.

If one entrance door has a large sign at eye level, but another door has a small sign just above the handle, it will be easy for people to miss one sign or the other. Instead, when you need similar signs in a variety of situations, make the signs match each other in color, size, and location. This sets up an expectation; a person who sees and recognizes one sign will look for a matching sign later on.

You can also take advantage of patterns that are recognized outside your workplace. Most floor marking systems already follow this approach to some degree, by using lines to mark the left and right sides of a lane of traffic—just like the stripes on a road tell drivers where to go. You might easily adopt other elements of traffic control signals, like a red octagon to show where people need to stop.

Future-Proof Wayfinding Systems

Workplaces are constantly changing to respond to new business needs and new outside influences. While the COVID-19 pandemic has led to more radical changes than anyone expected, it’s still just one major influence to consider.

Many times before, and especially over the last year, we’ve seen that flexibility is key to long-term success. A good wayfinding system will last until it needs to be changed, but even the best wayfinding systems will need to be changed eventually.

Don’t just be willing to revise your wayfinding system over time; expect changes to happen, and look for improvements that you can make. As the pandemic situation continues to change, will your organization revise its policies? What new information will your workers need to have? Consider new question points, adjust the useful answers that you give, and be aware of the patterns that you are creating or using.

Brian McFadden is a Compliance Specialist and Technical Writer for Graphic Products, the makers of the DuraLabel line of industrial label and sign printers. For more information about customized visual communication, visit www.GraphicProducts.com or call 800-788-5572.

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