Why is public signage failing?

Public spaces can be intimidating, especially for the more vulnerable sections of society, but better wayfinding and intelligent layouts can transform the most hostile environment, says Scott Billings. Not only do perceived levels of safety improve, but criminal behaviour is often reduced too


THE PHRASE ‘to have lost one’s way’ is often applied to people who have become anxious, confused and vulnerable. Although meant metaphorically, it’s no coincidence that to literally lose one’s way – to become disoriented – also causes tension to rise very quickly. In public spaces, such as hospitals, car parks and stations, this is the last thing users want, yet poorly designed wayfinding systems often compromise safety and may even increase the risks of criminal behaviour.


Blind alleys, dead ends, poor sight lines and disappearing trails all leave people floundering. As the Home Office’s guide to designing out crime says, good street lighting and wayfinding measures, clear sight lines and a minimum of secluded or isolated areas go a long way towards making people and places less vulnerable.


‘In designing spaces we want people to feel safer and be safer, and wayfinding is important in this,’ says Jake Desyllas, director of wayfinding and pedestrian movement specialist Intelligent Space. ‘By moving people around in a certain way, you can increase the number of people who are viewing a space, as well as the potential for people to enter it at any given moment. Even if no one is actually coming in through a doorway, the fact that they might makes a space feel safer than, say, an alleyway which nobody can suddenly enter.’ The need for a calm, safe flow of people is especially important in environments where tension may already be high, such as hospitals.


At Birmingham Heartlands Hospital, for example, the Accident & Emergency department suffered a rise in crime five years ago, especially in violence towards staff. An analysis by Intelligent Space found that incidents were talking place in the treatment rooms – the worst possible place – largely because people entered through the wrong entrance and were then drawn by natural light and activity into a medicallooking area. Poor wayfinding and signage also led to rising stress levels, increasing the likelihood of aggression. Intelligent Space created a new wayfinding system and resited the reception area so that it provides greater ‘natural surveillance’ by staff; the number of incidents subsequently fell by around 80 per cent.


Car parks are another trouble spot, with poor sight lines and lack of natural surveillance ratcheting up the risks of crime, according to design management consultant Raymond Turner. ‘They bend back on themselves and you end up in a space where nobody can see you and then a crime can happen,’ he says. ‘People need to be able to orient themselves where they feel others can see them. Ideally, you can always see a point of entry and a point of exit. Women report that they don’t want to be in a place that’s poorly lit, with poor signage.’


People with impaired memory are also vulnerable to losing their track, even on home ground. For the Design Business Association’s Inclusive Design Awards, wayfinding consultancy FW Design researched the needs of dementia sufferers and found that colour, iconic landmarks and repetition were all tools used to help this group of people navigate and orientate. The consultancy shows how its wayfinding and signage system for Romford town centre – which already uses a linear map to pictorially describe routes at regular intervals – could be extended for dementia sufferers to include a portable, task-focused navigational tool that works alongside the permanent wayfinding structures. These landmark cards work like stepping stones that can be compiled for any number of common journeys, by assembling specific cards in the right order.


Designing a space – or a wayfinding and signage system – that regulates the flow of people and minimises the risks of them becoming lost and confused can improve perceived safety, as well as reduce susceptibility to actual crime. Much of this is about creating spaces with natural wayfinding, rather than planting heaps of sign-based information everywhere. Desyllas describes effective spaces as having ‘casual surveillance’ and a ‘permeability’ of routes. Turner concurs, saying ‘Every sign you hang up condemns the building – it’s a crutch for a sick building that isn’t speaking clearly enough.’ He believes that architects need to work closely with wayfinding specialists to anticipate how people will use a space, if they are to reduce the likelihood of confusion and the number of trouble-spot locations. ‘Despite what they might say, architects are often not aware of how people actually use a space, and a failure of designers to put themselves in the shoes of inexperienced users can lead to lots of problems,’ he says.


Perhaps the key challenge lies in striking a balance between controlling people flow through layout, wayfinding and signage, giving them the freedom to move naturally in a pleasing environment and discouraging antisocial behaviour at the same time. Good examples of this are few and far between, says Marcus Wilcocks, a research fellow at the Design Against Crime Research Centre at Central St Martins College of Art and Design. ‘Concrete barriers or endless fencing may offer move-along-please aesthetics but rarely instil a greater sense of on-street security. I suggest we get back to designingin adjectives – not just specifications – when designing out crime from urban routes. Beauty, creativity and the resulting variation of form, material and colour are not utopian ideals, but necessities for human well-being, which can help us understand and move through city streets safely.’

Latest articles

Remembering Jon Daniel: 1966-2017

We look back on the life and work of the Design Week columnist, independent creative director and social activist “who helped put black participation on the political map”.