An Economic Case For Wayfinding Vis-à-vis Return On Investment
In one study, a 25M Pound investment in London’s Trafalgar Sq. yielded a 300% increase in visitation, and elevated it to the 3rd most popular London attraction.² The capital gains associated with a shift like this should mitigate apprehensions about the initial outlay of cash being allocated to wayfinding components of built environment projects of all kinds. “The process need not be complex or expensive, but it does require that the administration initially make the decision to commit time, effort, and money.” ² And when stakeholders in projects invest in wayfinding, the proof is in the pudding. When the Greater Birmingham & Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership reported in 2014, they said that when handled properly their well considered wayfinding signage and information program represented a benefit cost ratio of 3.29, a very high value for the money spent. This represented a net present value of 13.67M pounds for these investor’s initial investment. ⁷
Even if the built environment project being discussed is mundane, a considered wayfinding program will run circles around a haphazardly designed one. “Because of an increasingly service oriented attitude towards the customer [,] well developed signage [or wayfinding] systems are being taken into consideration as a corporate image factor⁴…” And as such, the relationship one forms with a built environment space will be reflected back in that individual’s perception of the organization that owns or operates the space. Thus, even parking garages and toilet stations should include in their initial planning, considerations for including wayfinding devices as well as an assay for potential opportunities in value engineering, spectacle-type or interpretive signage. After all, “According to a study [,] a medium sized hospital has spent four man-years per year just on inquiries for directions and explanations of signs.⁴” Which benefits the facility with lower operational costs as well as making “the owners” look better from a branding
standpoint. And the “Interpretation [based on a wayfinding program] can help in the management of visitor behavior too by explaining how visitors should behave and encouraging them to care for the places they visit. ¹”
Despite the manifold advantages a considered wayfinding program provides, there are few projects that adopt comprehensive wayfinding in their inception. This could be due to the high cost associated with “…interviews and observation [involved in such an action] (Hein 1995). Perhaps this is why so few visitor attractions regularly conduct rigorous evaluation[s].¹” But those costs, while perhaps spurring a “sticker shock” mitigate costs which accrue in the lifespan of the project. “The logical structure underlying efficient signage systems allows for a maximum of information to be communicated by a minimum of signs. Each sign that can be economized by not being posted saves the facility operator considerable costs. ⁴” And the information being communicated is more nuanced than a layman would initially expect. In this interpretation the amount of text doesn’t directly correlate with conveying “maximum information.” The location, shape and materiality of wayfinding components communicate with visitors the same as the typography and iconography do. An inexperienced practitioner may specify unnecessarily expensive or accidentally flimsy products which may seem attractive at first, but which will be extremely expensive in the long term. These errors can work against the benefits espoused here that can be enjoyed when wayfinding implementations are handled properly the first time rather than in a series of post-launch updates and revisions. “…A flexible, well-thought-out system that allows for changes and additions is more economical than an ad hoc approach to sign acquisition. ³”
Hospitals are an excellent case study for looking at best-in-class wayfinding program implementation. The measurements taken in hospitals from circulation metrics to time spent being admitted are so robust that they serve as an ideal first building block when crafting a considered wayfinding program. In addition to the blunt cash savings hospitals enjoy from using highly refined and developed wayfinding programs, their patient’s admittance is facilitated by wayfinding, which results in an improved user experience, which then in-turn improves patient outcomes. The fact that something like wayfinding which can be so easily disregarded as superficial window-dressing, can in fact possess quasi-medicinal properties I hope will make you think twice when considering, (or not considering as the case may be) wayfinding as a viable option for your project.
The reason it’s hard to make a case for including a robust wayfinding strategy, and that it historically doesn’t happen that often, or that it’s done haphazardly is that it’s hard to measure the benefits. The process can take multiple months or even years depending on the metrics taken into account. However, when we look back at history, humans have insisted on wayfinding or it’s antiquated historical analogs. We’ve woven desire paths through fields, painted rocks along foot-paths. The ability to find our way, and share that information with others is a very ancient human instinct which we’re quite good at. The novelty in today’s quandary is the scale and modernity of the wayfinding taking place. Cities, islands, and governments are implementing wayfinding programs, not just hospitals, apartment buildings and museums. And good on them; but in the years to come there will be a lot of wayfinding-type decisions made, and if these decisions are poorly considered the human race stands to miss out on what could be a grand rejuvenation of the experience of being on planet Earth.
Hopefully I’ve outlined enough factual information here that allocating funds to those who have studied and understand wayfinding seems like a “no-duh” investment to make when planning built environment projects. In one example where a comprehensive wayfinding program was proposed; the system was valuated at 418M Pounds over 20 yrs, with a benefit cost ratio of 5:3:1 in high estimates, and 1:5:1 in base cases.² As if the cash benefits weren’t sufficient the human benefits are manifold indeed. Have you ever been to a building or experienced a space which was so viscerally satisfying that it’s every detail remains intact in your memory? These are the kinds of experiences that can be manufactured and delivered by wayfinding and placemaking that comes from considered experiential design processes. People will more easily relate to and gain a “sense of place” from environments that have benefited from a quality wayfinding component as part of their initial plan. Conversely many of us can likely recall a particularly rotten, awful space (which for the purposes of this article does not have a quality wayfinding component) and I’d wager no one’s too eager to return there.
1 Designing Interpretive Signs: Principles In Practice (2007) Gianna Moscardo, Roy Ballantyne & Karen Hughes
2 London Streets London: Building A Business, A Case For Walking (2007) Adrian Bell of Walk 21 in Toronto
3 Signs and Graphics for Health Care Facilities (1979) American Hospital Association
4 Signage Planning Manual: Planning Aids for the Design of Pedestrian Signage Systems (2004) Patrick Wenzel
5 Willingness To Pay For London’s Strategic Walks (2005) SWN
6 NATA Refresh: Appraisal For A Sustainable Transport System (April 2009) The dept. Of Transportation, London
7 Wayfinding, Signage and Information on Package: Strategic Economic Plan/Local Growth Fund- Full Business Case Template (2014) Greater Birmingham & Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership
8 Wayfinding System Strategy For the City Of Toronto: Wayfinding Outline Business Case (2012)