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Designing a Healthcare Wayfinding System That Works

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healthcare signage

If you’re in a hospital, you’re most likely dealing with a stressful situation. Whether it be the seasonal flu or a more serious injury, the last thing people want to be doing in a hospital environment is running around like a chicken with its head cut off because three different people have told them that the radiology department is in three different directions.

One of the simplest and most helpful steps that hospital staff can take to help patients get through what can often be a long and frustrating process is to design a wayfinding system that allows things to flow smoothly and without confusion. Here, we’ve compiled a simple guide to hospital wayfinding and how to avoid the anxiety factorand what signage is key to ensuring that your system is functional and cohesive.

Find a balance between traditional and technological signage

With all of today’s advances in technology, and a move towards interactive and digital signage, it’s easy to get caught up in the idea of electronic kiosks and app based wayfinding systems. Although these high-tech replacements for traditional signage might make your facility look modern and cutting edge, they can also add anxiety to an already stressful experience. Particularly for older folks or those not familiar with advanced technology, these forms of wayfinding can actually add more stress rather than making the process easier.

A little goes a long way.

There are a countless number of wings, floors, and practices grouped throughout a hospital; putting every single specific practice on a sign from the moment you walk in the door is not only overwhelming, it almost renders your wayfinding system pointless.

Instead, opt for a system that groups several services into one category, and then becomes more specific once you reach that wing. For example, guide patients to OBGYN as they enter the hospital; when they reach that wing, your signage can guide them more specifically to general practice, neonatal, labor and delivery, and so on and so forth.

The Healthcare Design Magazine explains the ideal wayfinding system as an “onion peel”. This requires that your system includes the 4 types of wayfinding signs, which will allow patients to identify, be guided to, and pinpoint the specific location that they are trying to reach.

Keep the terminology simple.

Trying to understand medical jargon can not only be confusing for those who are not familiar with it, it can also be intimidating. In order to avoid frustration in an environment that can already be stressful for many patients, always use laymen’s terms rather than the official medical terminology. For example, rather than “otolaryngology”, keep it simple with “ear and nose care”. This will save patients a lot of frustration and prevent them from constantly having to ask around to find something that they’ve probably unknowingly passed numerous times.

Use graphics.

Use graphics, but don’t go overboard. When your directions get to the point where they are pinpointing specific specialties or rooms of the hospital, it’s good and even sometimes beneficial to incorporate graphics into your signage.

Add a pop of color to let people know where they should look.

After looking at miles and miles of eggshell colored hallways, a pop of color can help distinguish where a patient should be looking to find their next clue, so to speak. Whether it be a distinguishable elevator or a wall graphic highlighting a sign’s location, a little bit of color can go a long way in ensuring that people know what they’re looking for.

Create landmarks.

This doesn’t mean that by simply scattering artwork throughout your hospital campus, they will naturally serve as landmarks. Rather, you need a certain kind of imagery to serve as a landmark, and, more importantly, you have to ensure that its not cluttered with other images or eye-catching features that could distract from its purpose.


This is one step of the process that is so easily overlooked, but so vital to creating a wayfinding system that flows and not only maintains an appealing atmosphere, but adds to it. The key here is to start working on creating a simple and effective system from the get-go by bringing together design teams and architectural design companies to collaborate on a thoughtfully implemented system. If the two are working together, you are much more likely to have an end result that allows your wayfinding system to be clear, concise, and stress-free.

But if your hospital is years old and has experienced several renovations and additions, don’t worry, there’s still hope for your wayfinding system. Just because a hospital was not designed with a specific wayfinding system in mind, doesn’t mean that you can’t turn a potential maze into an easily navigable campus. Simply keep in mind the previous tips; even though you may not have the ability to create the optimal system from scratch, that doesn’t mean that proper signage can’t make it seem like new.