“Wayfinding” Theory for Information Design


Origins and Definitions

In his book The Image of the City (1960), Kevin Lynch coined the term “wayfinding” to describe his concept of environmental legibility—that is, the elements of the built environment that allow us to navigate successfully through complex spaces like cities and towns. Architect and environmental psychologist Romedi Passini and his collaborator Paul Arthur published two of the first comprehensive works on wayfinding: Wayfinding in Architecture (1984) and Wayfinding, People, Signs and Architecture (1992). These studies provided an understanding of the behavioral and cognitive abilities associated with spatial navigation and reaching a desired destination. An important precept is that of spatial orientation—the ability of an individual to mentally represent a place or destination through a cognitive map. The mental maps that people create are crucial to wayfinding in their environment. An individual’s map of the local environment is unique, but Lynch found that most people’s maps were populated by five types of elements:

  1. Paths: Familiar streets, walkways, subway routes, bus lines
  2. Edges: The physical barriers of walls, fences, rivers, or shorelines
  3. Districts: Places with a distinct identity, such as, in New York, Chinatown, Wall Street, and Greenwich Village
  4. Nodes: Major intersection or meeting places, such as the clock in New York’s Grand Central Terminal
  5. Landmarks: Tall, visible structures that allow you to orient over long distances

While there have been many newer perceptions and definitions for the theory since it’s conception, usually, however, wayfinding refers to modern systems of signs, maps, and other graphic, written, or audible methods to convey location, route finding, and directions to travelers. In the practice of environmental graphic designers, as well as in the work of landscape architects and architects, wayfinding can be construed as the art and science of using signs, symbols, maps, and other two and three-dimensional informational, directional, and architectural elements to create a system to guide people to and through a place or destination.

The concept of wayfinding is an important part of any well designed environment. When visiting a strange new place, viewers need to be able to find their way to their destination. A good wayfinding system, therefore, will allow them to reach their destination easily, quickly and hopefully with as few headaches as possible.

Pros and Cons

Some of the “Pros” of wayfinding as an information design theory are:

  • It helps people find their way through a built environment and allows users to not have to rely on their learned geographic knowledge or orientation skills alone in order to successful navigate in an unfamiliar setting.
  •  Reducing capability demands can widen the group of potential users, regardless of sex, age, culture, nationality or even language.
  •  It eases the directional frustration and stress from visitors
  •  Successful wayfinding systems increase user satisfaction and frequency of use.

Some of the “Cons” are:

  • Not all users value wayfinding tools the same way. Some users tend to rely more on information of a linear, sequential order that leads them from one point on a route to the next, whereas others are more likely to rely on information of a spatial nature that provides them with an overall picture of the setting.
  •  The readability of a display in the studio may not carry over to its application in the setting. For example, a sign containing many units of information, while easy to read in a quiet, stable setting may be difficult to make out in a complex environment where users are in motion.
  •  An information unit located at a place when it is not needed at the time has a good chance of being ignored.
  •  Relations between architects and graphic designers are usually problematic when it comes to implementing wayfinding aids. Architects often see signage as a necessary evil that needs to be controlled so as not to disfigure a building, while graphic designers complain that they are not involved in the design of wayfinding support systems until after the key decisions have been made and the setting is being built. Often they are called in at the last-minute to install some signs before opening day.

Waysfinding Applied to Website Design

If you think about it, the World Wide Web is navigation through a space populated by places we call web “sites”. Although there are many parallels between navigation in a physical environment and navigation on the web, the web is a special kind of space that often doesn’t provide the concrete spatial and navigational clues we take for granted in the real world of walking through a town, such as the experience of landscapes unfolding as a series of landmarks. Below are some of the cognitive mapping elements and navigational tools that can be applied to better website design:


In web sites paths are the consistent, predictable navigational links that appear the same way throughout the web site. Paths can be purely in the user’s mind (habitual navigation through a familiar site), or can be explicit site navigation elements such as breadcrumb trails that show an individual where they are in relation to the overall site.

figure 1

Figure 1 — Two examples of breadcrumb trails in site headers.

Districts and edges

Consistency is the golden rule of interface design and wayfinding, but there is a paradox at the heart of consistency: if everything looks the same, there are no edges. While a well-designed site navigation system should be built on a consistent page grid, terminology, and navigation links, it should also incorporate the visual flexibility to create identifiable regions and edges within the larger space, so that users can tell when they have moved from one space to the next. In a corporate site, for example, if you move from one region to another—say, from marketing’ to human resources’—you should notice that you just passed an important regional boundary.

figure 2

Figure 2 — In large sites users should be able to readily see when they have passed important regional boundaries. If all the pages look identical, it’s hard to tell where you are within a large site.


In Western societies we equate freedom with a range of choices, but as psychologist Barry Schwartz points out in his book The Paradox of Choice, an overwhelming range of choices causes stress, slows our decision-making, makes us generally less satisfied, and makes us more likely to walk away from making any choice at all. “Give the user choices” is a constant mantra in user interface design, but too many choices delivered simultaneously leave most users overwhelmed and likely to abandon the problem altogether.

 figure 3

Figure 3 — As pages get more complex, you risk overwhelming the user with the “Times Square effect” of too many competing visual stimuli.


Orientation cues are particularly important in the web interface, since users often arrive at a page without having followed a deliberate and repeatable path. For example, one point of web wayfinding that is quite unlike navigation in physical space is search, which cuts across all the normal wayfinding boundaries to provide a view of every occurrence of a keyword or phrase across the web site. Search is more than an automated directory function; search can deliver you directly from one point in a site to another, and that direct connection makes the user all the more dependent on “you are here” cues from the user interface of the site.

figure 4

Figure 4— Multiple and complementary “you are here” markers help users stay oriented in complex sites.

Principles of Wayfinding Applied to my Blog

  • Paths: While I cannot incorporate a breadcrumb trail through the WordPress platform, I will provide navigational tools in the sidebar that will allow users to choose their paths/destinations.
  • Regions: I will create a unique but related identity for each of the posts and regions in my blog with the use of color.
  • Nodes: I will not confuse the user with too many choices on the homepage or sidebar menu.
  • Landmarks: I will use consistent landmarks in site navigation and graphics to keep the user oriented.


 Raphael, David. “Wayfinding Principles & Practices.” Landscape Architecture Technical Information Series 2nd ser. (2006). Http://fergusonsportal.macmate.me. American Society of Landscape Architects, 2006. Web. 20 Feb. 2013. http://fergusonsportal.macmate.me/Portal/Urban_Systems_files/LATIS%20Wayfinding.pdf.

 Lascano, Ryan. “What Makes A Good Wayfinding System?” Arrows & Icons Magazine. Arrows & Icons Magazine, 06 Oct. 2009. Web. 20 Feb. 2013. http://www.arrowsandicons.com/articles/recent-articles/page/2/.

 Lynch, Patrick J., and Sarah Horton. “Interface Design: Navigation and Wayfinding.” Webstyle Guide. Http://webstyleguide.com, n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2013. http://webstyleguide.com/wsg3/4-interface-design/2-navigation.html.