The design and content of directional signs in the majority of America's cities and towns are based on the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), a comprehensive set of rules, guidelines and procedures regulating highway signs and related hardware. The highway sign structure works because it is a systematic response to a highly uniform set of conditions. Speed rules the road: the number of messages, the size of the lettering, and the spacing of the signs are all determined by the traffic speed.

But get off the highway, and the rules change because each city has its own set of variables. Downtown Portland, with its 200-foot city blocks, is different than Salt Lake City, where blocks exceed 450 feet in length. Traffic in downtown Los Angeles seldom moves at the posted speed limits, unlike rural highways or suburban parkways.

Considering the difference in addressing the needs of intown versus highway drivers, many cities are developing their own proprietary community directional sign programs. Known as wayfinding programs, the city-specific systems are driven by a strong desire for a visitor-friendly environment that addresses both vehicular and pedestrian signage issues while presenting a unique civic visual identity. Simply put, the signage on interstate highways and state trunk lines is a well-conceived and executed program of forms, colors, typography and design principles. However, that strategy is not always appropriate or effective for use on urban streets — with slower traffic, a high number of pedestrians and dense environments.

Which way, Wichita?

Visual simplicity is at the core of wayfinding signs. For example, because drivers need periodic confirmation of their routes, the signs often use “up” arrows to indicate the “straight ahead” direction. Using graphic elements consistently also aids in understanding the information, especially in complex urban environments.

Consistent design elements are essential to the success to wayfinding signs. When drivers are presented with a series of consistently sized and colored signs, they are able to pick them out more quickly, providing more time to comprehend the information.

Despite their relative simplicity, wayfinding signs often contain more information than highway signs. For example, one sign can list up to five or six destinations, compared to two under MUTCD highway standards. Cities often list multiple, clustered and closely located tourist destinations. Under MUTCD standards, signs frequently cannot accommodate the number of places visitors are seeking. Wayfinding signs also use upper and lower case lettering and ADA-compliant fonts, which improve readability and comprehension.

Last year, Wichita, Kan., installed a wayfinding and signage program throughout its downtown area to better direct people to its attractions and to identify four distinct downtown districts. The final phase in a decade-long effort to revitalize the city, the program is helping residents and first-time visitors to discover an area rich with museums, parks, attractions and destinations.

The signs depict downtown Wichita's four districts, each with its own icon, color palette, artistic signage and unique sculptural gateway. One of the four signs greet drivers at the entrance to each district with a graphic interpretation of that district's icon presented in a specific color theme.

The Quad Cities area of Illinois and Iowa also are starting a wayfinding program because a network of one-way streets creates confusion among travelers in the area. To better guide their visitors and to promote the Quad Cities as a more user-friendly and diverse center for entertainment and culture, Joe Taylor, president and CEO of the area's Convention and Visitors Bureau, recently approved a new wayfinding sign program. According to Taylor, the new signs will, “maximize tourism, improve community image, and unite fragments into a whole [while improving] safety and comfort for everyone.”

Indy races to sign up

A fundamental difference in urban wayfinding programs and highway guide signs is the need to coordinate directional signs for both pedestrians and drivers. Creating a “single voice” for guide signs and map kiosks has proven to be beneficial to visitors. Wayfinding programs organize large amounts of information on simple signs for easy comprehension.

In 2000, Indianapolis installed an extensive wayfinding program throughout its downtown to guide more than 25 million annual visitors. “We introduced a wayfinding program in our downtown because our visitors requested help in finding their way to the cultural, arts and sporting attractions and other public destinations,” says Tamara Zahn, president of Indianapolis Downtown.

Indianapolis represents one of the most comprehensive wayfinding programs of its kind in the country. The program provides directional assistance to more than sixty downtown attractions with five interstate signs, 10 welcome signs, 25 vehicular signs, 100 pedestrian signs and eight illuminated pedestrian map kiosks.

“Pedestrians are the most important audience and customer. If a wayfinding system doesn't work for pedestrians, it doesn't work, period,” Zahn says. “Since its implementation, the program has improved customer relations and reduced sign inconsistency.”

In downtown Los Angeles, a wayfinding program known as LA Walks involves developing a system of pedestrian and vehicular signs for the city's bustling downtown core — an area with 350 city blocks, 50 streets, more than 300 intersections, 30 freeway off ramps and eight subway stops.

The non-profit Confederation of Downtown Associations, an alliance of nine business improvement districts, is spearheading the project. The Confederation is working with the city to improve access to downtown bus and subway systems, reduce traffic congestion on and around area freeways, and reduce automobile emissions.

A well-coordinated system of vehicular and pedestrian signs is an important element in the success of programs such as those in Indianapolis and Los Angeles. Pedestrians will walk farther and explore the city more if they have confidence that the directional information they will need is available.

“Since implementing our wayfinding program in downtown Indianapolis, we have found that attendance in all our venues has continued to increase, but much more dramatically with the smaller, less-frequented destinations,” Zahn says. “Wayfinding programs bring with them a synergy that promotes all venues equally.”

Finding the way

Cities that are planning wayfinding programs should involve numerous agencies and community groups, including the city government, state and local departments of transportation, the convention and visitors bureau, the downtown association, neighborhood groups, local transportation agencies, and representatives from a wide range of cultural, entertainment and recreational programs.

The public also should be brought into the planning and design process periodically to assure the appropriateness of the approach, and to develop and nurture the support of the community at large. “A successful program requires the collaboration of many partners, including state and local transportation agencies, attractions, and other community-based stakeholders,” Zahn says.

Programming for Wichita's system only was started after an extensive period of public participation. Those findings were then applied to a wayfinding strategy that would identify the downtown core from major highways, identify routes to the core area, identify the gateways to the core area, and identify the four districts and the routes to them.

The wayfinding program in Kalamazoo, Mich., began with the city's effort to revitalize its downtown area in 1998, following a vote to re-open the Kalamazoo Mall, a pedestrian street, to vehicular traffic. As a part of that project, the city included a wayfinding system to deal with the changing vehicular and pedestrian circulation.

Kalamazoo's sign program defines the six downtown neighborhoods or districts to direct people before pointing them to specific destinations. A symbol and color were designated for each district. The sign designs reflect the art deco style prevalent throughout downtown Kalamazoo. The wayfinding system includes signs that lead visitors to downtown Kalamazoo from outlying areas; unique graphics that announce the traveler's arrival in the downtown area while providing cultural and historical information; vehicular and pedestrian directional signs to define the various downtown districts and to lead visitors to specific destinations in each district; and pedestrian maps throughout downtown to direct people to specific destinations. The program can be expanded to include the entire city, incorporating the names of residential neighborhoods.

California, here we are

In addition to Los Angeles, California is the home to two more wayfinding programs: Sacramento and Redondo Beach. As a state capital, Sacramento is typical in the diversity of audiences it serves, from government officials to tourists and nearby residents.

The sign system uses distinct colors to identify the districts: downtown, midtown and Old Sacramento. “An attractive and helpful directional system will help enhance downtown Sacramento's image as an interesting, safe and convenient regional destination,” says David Harzoff, senior project manager for the city's Economic Development Department.

In Redondo Beach, a wayfinding program that is being implemented was the natural evolution of a program that began as a way to better identify city boundaries and distinguish the coastal town from its neighbors. “We want our sign program to unify the city, to be a source of pride and to call attention to special facilities, business districts and attractions,” says Susan Armstrong, assistant city manager.

The program eventually will be seen throughout the city in new primary and secondary gateways, vehicular directional signage, cultural and civic destination signage, and just about every street naming sign within the city.

In the end, wayfinding is as much about the success and identity of the city as it is about clearly presenting information and promoting safety. By using a common look and consistent design that speaks in a consistent voice, wayfinding instills user confidence, reflects a more secure environment and creates a unique sense of place.

Jeffry Corbin is President of Corbin, a Traverse City, Mich.-based design firm. Wayne Hunt is the founding principal of Hunt Design Associates, a Pasadena, Calif.-based environmental graphics firm.