The Importance of Wayfinding Signage, Gateways and Banners

Signs. Think about it. What would we do without signs? Crosswalks, road junctions, parking, street names — signs are a critical element in our lives. When they are well done, we take them for granted because they help to make our travels stress free and seamless. When they are poorly planned, it’s all we can talk about. A welcome gateway to a town and an easy way to navigate – for residents and tourists – is an important part of downtown revitalization.

Since moving to a new town and doing my best to locate all of the trails and find the best places to shop/eat, the shortcuts and the town events, I’ve realized the importance of actively promoting your own town, to its residents and to tourists. For those of us without school age children or an existing network of friends where we live, it is very hard to be in the loop. My town does not do the greatest job of publicizing events or identifying and locating its resources/activities to those not in the know. We do not have a true welcome center or a coherent signage system, despite the fact that we are in the middle of ski country. As a new resident in town, I think one of the most helpful resources would be a “you are here” map and a good town website. If only all towns could have smart phone apps like the big cities do?! (I’m kidding, sort of.)

Aside from access to information, an important element for towns and cities is the gateway. What is the first impression that tourists will have when entering the town? Or, how will residents feel when returning home? People need to feel welcome and should be directed where to go for information or how to get to the business district, where to park, how to find the baseball field, post office or library, etc. And a “You are Here” sign at a critical crossroads or center of town could do wonders. Such a sign that features a circle to represent a 5 or 10 minute walking distance could be a good idea as well.

Downtown signage is a hot topic in communities, currently, in the United States and in Europe. (Check out Legible London and the article in Slate magazine.) The goal of uniform and complementary signs throughout a town/city will hopefully help to create a positive subconscious feeling for tourists and residents. In a way, it shows community pride in addition to providing an easy visitor experience. People are more likely to return if they have felt comfortable and not stressed when visiting. Right? An effective signage and wayfinding system is an art form – almost – or at least requires forethought and planning. The Project for Public Spaces provides information about how to create that effective system.

Living in and visiting small towns who survive partially based on tourism (actually much of Vermont’s economy is fueled by the tourism industry – come visit!) has opened my eyes and perhaps changed my mind about signage and even banners. A well planned wayfinding system has the power to change a visitor’s experience and to help the town succeed.

It is now that I have to retract my distaste for banners. I first wrote about them in 2008 when I lived in Southern Pines, because I felt that in this town they were not shared throughout the town and left out businesses. That, and they actually said the word “charm” on them. Okay, I still agree with myself on those facts. However, I think the use of banners can be effective and do provide a helpful guide for travelers. For a town who is working to establish a gateway and main street feeling, banners are a good step forward.

Historic downtown banners in Southern Pines, North Carolina (2008).

So the next time you are traveling in a new place or where you live, take note of the signage. What sort of system does your town have? What do you think about signage? How about banners? If you could offer a fresh opinion, what would you change?