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Save time. Reduce stress. Show the way.

Whether you have “a good sense of direction” or not, navigating healthcare facilities with poor, missing or overly complicated signage is frustrating. In absence of effective wayfinding, people must rely on other people for help to their destination, which can be equally frustrating, wasteful and taxing on patients’ health. In this post, we discuss problems and solutions to healthcare wayfinding.


In Design That Cares, authors Janet Carpman and Myron Grant cite important studies that reveal the effects of poor wayfinding design in healthcare, such as:

Patients’ health suffers. Patients who are lost experience “feelings of helplessness, raised blood pressure, headaches, increased physical exertion and fatigue.” The medical oath to “do no harm” is undermined when a patient arrives experiencing stress due to navigation problems in the healthcare facility.

Patients’ and visitors’ time is wasted. “Visitors … because they became lost, may have less time to spend with patients.” Most people lead busy lives, and no one should have to spend time wandering the facility in order to visit a patient. It is a waste of time for both patients and visitors.

Staff is less productive. If your staff is spending time giving directions, they have less time for other parts of their jobs. The cost of lower productivity among staff at one major hospital was estimated at $220,000 per year. Moreover, if patients and visitors can easily find their destination without interrupting staff, all patients may receive more direct care time.


Varying learning styles.

  • Some people are great at using maps and directions. In this case, a kiosk, map station or interactive mobile maps will get them where they need to be without the need to ask for directions.
  • Some people need to hear directions. An information desk at entrance areas will save other staff from needing to give directions. The person at the information desk can introduce your wayfinding process so that visitors/patients can be sure they are on the right track.
  • Some remember visual cues. When providing directions, offer visual checkpoints using descriptive language. Who wouldn’t want to be able to say, “hang a left at the fork”?

Too much information.

  • To keep traffic flowing, directional signs need to be readable in approximately one second while still containing enough information to get people to the next possible step in the right direction.
  • Ideally offer two, but no more than three, different directions as a possibility. Too many ways to go results in confusion.
  • Remove distractions. Too many signs and posters can make it difficult for people to focus, and they will simply choose to look at nothing over information overload.

Poor placement.

  • Wayfinding should be at eye level. Signs that need to be seen from a distance should be placed at a higher level, whereas signs at hallway junctions need to be lower for easy reading.
  • Wayfinding should be in well-lit areas. A wayfinding study using light and an exit sign found that in well-lit areas, people’s eyes move toward the sign. In poorly lit areas, people focus more on the light. Keeping wayfinding lit will prevent unnecessary contemplation.
  • Use logical placement near landmarks, such as intersections and columns, or other large eye-catching objects. Use these natural eye-catching objects and areas for wayfinding since people are already drawn to looking at them.


Gather a task force to audit your signage. Engage people who are and are not familiar with your facilities. Assign them all at least one destination and have them begin from a location where patients would start. From roadway entry points, along any pathways, to parking areas and building entrances, ask your task force to note any areas of confusion and possible solutions.

Be consistent. Signs should have distinct specifications based on their type and location. Create guidelines to ensure organization-wide consistency, and be sure to store the documentation in an easy-to-access location such as your policies and procedures software. A good example, the University of Michigan has created consistent guidelines for wayfinding that contain specifications for all university-related facilities, including the health system.

Use differences to your advantage. Departments and other areas of a facility may be identified by differentiating, but consistently applied, specifications. For example:

  • Overhead signs that suspend from the ceiling or over doorways may be used to direct people to major destinations.
  • Directional signs at eye-level may be used at junctions where a decision must be made on which way to go.
  • Specific colors and letters can help differentiate locations. In the example below, the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center’s interior signs are red, while the Med Inn signs are brown. U-M Health online maps are color-coded to match the facility sign colors for consistency.

  • Put reference maps and directions online. Online information done in the same style as the facility will help bridge the connection between maps and the real-life navigation experience. Adding images of the facilities and even a video to your website may also help people know what to look for ahead of time.
  • Be prepared to rapidly replace signs.  Changes are frequent and sometimes sudden in healthcare organizations, so it’s important to be ready to quickly make, add to and replace signs that break or need changes. Plan ahead for growth and change. Sign manufacturers usually offer signage with “slots” that make it easier for you to change out signage.


How well does your organization accommodate people in your facilities? We hope you take the time to examine your own wayfinding system and improve what you can. As always, we love to hear from you and welcome your input on our posts. Get in touch with us on Facebook and let us know what you think!

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