Imagine going to a doctor’s appointment at a hospital or clinic: You navigate visitor parking, the elevator bank, reception, the exam room suite, a restroom, and the cafe.
Were you able to find your way to your destination effortlessly, without having to ask for help or retrace your steps? Or did you find yourself lost and zigzagging back and forth—even though you’d been there before?
Your ease in finding your way to a medical appointment actually depends on something you may not be consciously aware of: wayfinding design.
“We subscribe to the onion peel theory: you get people from home to campus, campus to building, building to floor, and so on,” says Chris Bowles, senior designer, environmental graphics, EYP Atlanta.
The best wayfinding is meant to feel intuitive, a seamless structuring of the environment to guide visitors as they navigate external and internal (and, increasingly, virtual) spaces to get to their destination. And now, in many healthcare facilities, it also includes separate pathways for suspected COVID vs. non-COVID patients, one-way visitor flow, newly spaced-out waiting areas, social distancing guidelines, and “mask up” signage.
“How do we help people navigate through the healthcare environment when they don’t want to touch anything?” asks Chris. “We always start by asking, ‘What can we do to make the journey into this healthcare facility easier?’ ”
Wayfinding must be aimed at the first-time visitor since familiarity with the facility can’t be presumed. “Basic wayfinding becomes even more important in stressful situations that may change from week to week or month to month,” says Brandon Allen, senior designer, environmental graphics, EYP Atlanta.
Paper handouts, plastic maps, interactive kiosks with touch screens—these frequently touched items may seem archaic if not downright dangerous.
“We’re seeing more freestanding hygiene stations and a lot more signage for health and hygiene,” says Phuong Nguyen, senior designer, environmental graphics, EYP Atlanta. “Whenever possible, we are encouraging clients to place signs that are integrated into the environment. For instance, handwashing decals can be placed on the mirror above the sink.”
Let’s take a hypothetical visit to a healthcare facility through the eyes of our “professional wayfinders,” EYP’s graphic design team members.
Get a (Digital) Head Start
“We’ve always felt like the journey of health care starts at home,” Chris adds. “Let’s say your appointment is in three to four days, you get a patient packet or, better yet, get on the facility’s website and start absorbing information in the comfort of your own home: OK, here’s where I’m supposed to go, here’s valet parking, here’s the parking deck for self-service, and this is the hospital entry closest to my appointment.”
A lot of untapped potential rests in digital wayfinding systems as well as in touchless directories and speech-responsive devices. After all, if Siri or Alexa can help with our grocery order, music selection, and driving directions, why can’t the same tech help us navigate our healthcare environments?
“Ideally you could state your destination, say your smartphone number, and your handheld device could walk you through the building,” Chris says. “It’s a highly personalized approach and you’re not touching anything but your own device.”
Digitally assisted wayfinding also solves the language barrier, as every communication could be translated into the language set by the user. And patients without smartphones could be given (freshly sanitized) handheld wayfinding devices while at the facility.
“You’re still going to have conventional wayfinding, signage, etc.,” Chris adds. “But it speaks volumes for hospitals that are getting out in front of this with the right technologies, building a virtual environment that is as welcoming as the actual one.”
Take Control of Signage
Sign overload is real, especially in the time of COVID: “Masks Required,” “Keep a 6-Foot Distance,” “COVID Testing.”
“Our first step is to have them declutter and establish a hierarchy,” says Phuong. “Which signs are permanent, and which are temporary? Which are most important? You can’t post five to six different messages at one decision point or people will be overwhelmed.”
Also, with social distancing precautions, hospitals want to avoid having groups of people cluster in one spot to examine a directory or read multiple signs. These junction points need to move visitors along, not encourage them to linger.
Clearness and consistency are even more important when a whole new layer of information is required. “This should be all the more reason for clients to invest in wayfinding strategies and standards that are consistently applied across their campus,” Brandon says.
Visitors shut down when met with confusion or chaos. But hospital leaders face consequences, and even liability, if important information is not effectively communicated.
“Administrators and staff are trying to meet all these standards, so there has got to be a flexible system, something they can use so they aren’t just taping up pieces of paper everywhere,” says Robyn Canady, senior designer, environmental graphics, EYP Atlanta.
If a facility has not addressed this, there will be visual clutter—too much info with no real thoughts about how to organize it. “That drives me crazy,” Robyn says. “Facilities need to sit down, analyze, and figure out their strategy so it’s clear. Not just paste up every bit of information they think people need to read.”
Hospitals may even need to anoint “sign police”—a thankless job in this climate. “Someone has to make the tough decisions on what is worthy of posting,” says Chris. “If you post everything, you might as well post nothing. Really important stuff will go by the wayside.”
Color Me Found
In wayfinding, often less is more.
Guidance can be as simple as an illuminated ceiling track leading to the elevator bank, or arrows painted on parking garage walls pointing to the hospital entrance.
“As environmental graphic designers, we have to determine how the entire operation is going to work and make the signage support that,” Chris says. “Wayfinding information needs to be strategically placed so it is readable and noticeable, and it needs to show visitors where to go and how best to get there. You don’t want people wandering around aimlessly, especially these days.”
Traditionally, colors have been used in wayfinding to segment populations: emergency patients take the red trail, pediatric patients take the blue trail, etc. “Colors can help people find their way quickly and move through the space more effectively,” Chris says. “Certain colors are already associated with specific things already, such as red for emergency.”
Of course, designers must keep in mind that a certain percentage of the population is color blind (up to 8 percent of men) and find it hard to distinguish between red and green, or blue and yellow, hues. “Color can be a part of the solution but not the whole,” Chris adds.
Because minutes count in health care emergencies, hospitals must be strategic in how they triage and send patients on separate tracks. “Color-coding only works with distinct colors,” says Robyn. “It can’t be 20, it needs to be more like five.”
EYP-designed Stamford Hospital, in Connecticut, for example, designates separate treatment areas to create a more efficient process. Patients are triaged as soon as they arrive, by a team that includes a medical provider and a nurse. The zones are color-coded: green for low acuity and walk-ins, yellow for moderate acuity, red for critical, trauma, and cardiac, purple for pediatrics, and blue for mental health.
Since elementary school, when everything from sports teams to reading groups had their own colors, we have been trained to respond to color coding in an almost subliminal manner. Taking advantage of that “pre-programing” makes good sense in a chaotic or stressful environment.
Reduce Anxiety and Save Time
Clear and consistent wayfinding strategies reduce the time visitors spend searching for their destination “You need to have a strategy and give visitors a clear path of travel,” says Phuong.
At the same time, this makes things easier on employees, taking the burden off the staff so that nurses or security guards don’t spend as much time directing people.
When patients and families feel welcomed and oriented, it reduces their fear and uncertainty.
“People don’t wake up and say, ‘Let’s go to the hospital,’ ” says Chris. “Already, their frame of mind is not the best. We start off by asking ourselves, ‘What can we do to minimize anxiety? You need to be really directive with people. Patients may be escorted into the building and to their appointment, but they will rarely be escorted out. So, you have to be mindful of that journey back and set up landmarks that will be familiar to them.”
The overall strategy is to take the larger journey and break it down into smaller, more manageable segments. “If you’re going to Florida, you don’t just get in the car and take off, you plan to drive from your house to the highway, get on and off at the correct exits, and then find your destination from there,” Chris says. “Likewise, we put the largest destinations on overhead signage, and once someone gets there, there is additional guidance. It’s about managing how much information someone can process at once.”
Areas of the hospital should be identified not only on maps and directories but in real life as well. For instance, if a zone is labeled “1A” in the directory, there needs to be signage that echoes this and lets visitors know when they are in Zone 1A.
Another useful wayfinding tool is a pictogram sign indicating stairwells, exit doors, and elevators. Pictograms are language-neutral, says Brandon, which can help simplify things for a diverse patient population.
One of the fundamental rules of wayfinding is to give the right information at the right time in the right way. The intent is to reduce indecision as much as possible. “When, as in many health care facilities, you add in elements like speed and stress, you need to go even more basic with the iconography,” Brandon says.
For example, an element that has been added during the pandemic is floor markings, to indicate where people should stand for social distancing. These can be as simple as spaced-out stickers of footprints, showing people where to stand in line.
Wayfinding relies on consistency. “When you start to throw in too much variety, it can add stress instead of diminishing it,” Brandon says. “Standardization makes people feel like there is a plan, which psychologically makes them feel safer.
“When visitors don’t have to think about what to do, we’ve done our job. Wayfinding is at its best when you don’t notice it.”