Whether a university is being built or a street fair is springing up, wayfinding signage is one of the keys to a great visitor experience. A university might be more interested in permanent signage solutions, while the street fair’s wayfinding is created from DIY A-frame signs. The basic guiding principles behind the design and placement of those signs should be the same. Signs deliver information, and in wayfinding signage, only a handful of different types of signs are necessary to deliver information. Knowing what those types of signs are is an integral part to creating a useful system of wayfinding signage. So what are the four types of signs? Ernest Dwight (2008) makes the most sense when he lists these four:


  • Identification
  • Directional
  • Informational
  • Regulatory

Defining these four types of signs is simple, as is knowing how to use them. When designing the system, remember, the simpler the wayfinding signage system is made, the better for all involved; from the designers of the wayfinding signage system, to the visitors using it to get around. The idea behind designing signs is to convey as much information as necessary in as little space possible. That’s why it helps to think of signs in these four different categories. So what are these types of signs and how should they get used?

Identification signs

On August 25, 1916, Congress created the National Park Service. Aside from their natural beauty and the effort that goes into preserving it, National Parks are also well-known for their entrance signs. These entrance signs are a perfect example of what identification signs are all about. They identify the park. Inside the park, identification signs point out specific park features and areas. Identification signs can take the form of words labeling the location, or they can display icons, such as a tent signifying that the location is a campsite. Identification signs serve visitors best if they are easy to understand. They shouldn’t point the way to a location, an identification sign symbolizes arrival at the location. For pointing the way, there are directional signs.

Directional signs

When it comes to pointing the way, the directional or wayfinding signs are the sign for the job. When using directional signage, the best rule to follow is to keeping it simple. When planning a wayfinding system, try to plan it as early in the overall planning stage as possible. Unfortunately, wayfinding plans often get left to the end, and don’t receive the attention they deserve. Directional signs don’t appear at the location, they appear around the location and on the way to the location. Directional signs need to be hidden in plain sight. They should appear at junctions, or anywhere a person on a way to a location might look to see which way to get to that location. Directional signs are also what turn a group of many individuals into a singular crowd. Airports, for instance, aren’t made for standing around; they’re made for transit. Directional signs keep people moving where they shouldn’t be standing still. So someone follows the directional signs until they find the identification sign. When they find that, they’ll need an informational sign to know a little more.

Informational signs

What are the hours of operation? Is public Wi-Fi available? Did the Marquis de Lafayette say this bust of George Washington is the best likeness of him that he’s ever seen? All this and more can be supplied to visitors through informational signs. While informational signs can be found at locations marked by identification signs, they can also provide information about other things along the route. For instance, if an area is under construction, it’d be nice to give a little head’s up to anyone in sandals that the road might get a little rocky. If a way is temporarily closed, that’s also good to know ahead of time. While the informational signs are there to put people in the know, it’s the regulatory signs that tell them what they can and cannot do.

Regulatory signs

Regulatory Signs

Some of the most important signs are regulatory signs. These signs tell people the regulations or requirements of the area. Is parking allowed? The sign says “no parking,” so no it isn’t. Speed limit signs, no parking signs and stop signs are all good examples of regulatory signs for traffic control, but signs that tell people they need to wear shirts and shoes may also be considered regulatory signs. Is smoking in the area not allowed? How will people know without a regulatory sign with a no smoking allowed symbol? Regulatory signs need to be clearly visible to warn of rules or regulations of which the disregard might constitute a violation of the law or regulate behavior in public places.

The messages on every type of sign listed above should be crystal clear, and as short as possible. Too many signs can be just as bad as too few. Aside from that, the rules are simple; directional signs point the way, identification signs announce the location, informational signs tell about the location, and regulatory signs set rules and regulations for the area.

Dwight, E. (2008). Signs of the Times. American School & University, 80(12), 38-40.