Wayfinding Signage in the COVID Age: Moving From Alarming to Engaging
A lot has changed since life before COVID, but more than a year since the onset of the pandemic, those changes continue to evolve as we adjust to an uncertain reality. This is exemplified when looking back on the signage we encounter on a day-to-day basis; as COVID hit, wayfinding and safety signage were often simple and somewhat alarming, aiming to convey the importance of the message clearly while also being viewed as a temporary solution.
Unfortunately, the virus has not been as quite as temporary, and before long it became apparent that DIY signage and menacing designs weren’t going to cut it. One of the most significant changes over the past year has been the evolution of COVID-related signage from frightening to friendly, as brands seize the opportunity to design all types of signage with welcoming yet clearly-defined messaging, moving toward bright, warm — and often branded — colors and playful imagery.
Welcoming and Friendly
Wayfinding in particular has been significantly impacted in line with the way we navigate the outside world. Jon Davis, marketing manager at digital print service provider Cushing, says, “Businesses — both nonprofit and for profit — are starting to understand wayfinding needs to serve the intended purpose: direct visitors and guests where they need to go. And it’s also an untapped opportunity to add color and dimension to a space, as well as being fun. We do think more companies will continue to use wayfinding to improve environments and brand awareness more in the future.”
Micah Causey, VP of Business Development, Floor Signage, agrees that wayfinding signage has softened since the start of the pandemic, commenting, “From a messaging standpoint, I think it started with just, ‘stand six feet apart’, which was more factual, but the message has migrated to a friendlier message about being courteous to your fellow citizen, such as ‘do your part, stand six feet apart’. It became a little more friendly.”
While still needing to be attention grabbing from a safety and regulatory standpoint, businesses are also increasingly making wayfinding signage their own. Orbus Exhibit and Display Group supplies solutions through a dealer network, and moved quickly to add a number of additional products to their catalogue to meet changing demand. Natalie Whited, VP of Marketing, Orbus, explains, “As things evolved, we definitely saw companies put their own artwork on their graphics related to COVID signage, especially as companies reopened. We created and rolled out artwork and graphics that would provide inspiration for companies that were designing artwork with their own logos.”
As COVID adjustments became something that we had to live with, the evolution of wayfinding signage continued, with opportunities to support brand objectives, and incorporate messaging that simplified and enhanced the customer journey. Many of us will be able to recall instances of playful and original spins on floor graphics, or window decals that have been shared on social media over the past 12 months, demonstrating an additional opportunity for businesses and brands to get creative with the products.
The marketing team at signage and advertising franchise Signarama comments, “We have seen an increase in creative ways to use signage, including wayfinding signage, to share messages with customers and friends. Most recently, we have seen a trend called ‘the sign war’ using traditional wayfinding signage structures such as sidewalk and monument signs, to poke fun back and forth with nearby businesses. This started as a way to bring positivity among the local community and encourage people to visit small businesses again.”
Changes That Are Here to Stay
The increased importance of wayfinding signage in the COVID era could be here to stay, according to Floor Graphics’ Causey. Could it be an opportunity for floor graphics in particular to strengthen its position as a wayfinding staple? “Floor graphics haven’t always been as widely used everywhere,” says Causey. “Some customers have had bad experiences, or think they are easily damaged.
“Before COVID, if 20% of retailers were using floor graphics, that has now grown to close to 100%. Floor graphics have almost been in a long infancy since the early- to mid-2000s, and now they’ve really come into play as a viable, important aspect of media signage. We’re going to see a lot more floor graphics for promotional and advertising, but from a wayfinding aspect too. Now people are used to seeing floor graphics, it opens them up for further use in directional and wayfinding.”
The Signarama team echoes this observation. “We have seen a huge increase in the use of floor graphics as a wayfinding tool and social distancing reminder, as well as A-frames and more temporary forms of signage to assist with forming lines when people are visiting destinations.”
Signarama owner Spencer Coleman adds, “Almost every industry that we serve needed something COVID-19 related during this past year. Some needed it to keep people safe while on site, some needed it to make sure they got to the right place, and others needed it just to stay open. Those that might not have had signage before, are now requesting some kind of wayfinding signage for their business. Over the past few weeks, I have had numerous meetings where clients now ask for specific things in their locations that we provided for customers during the pandemic, such as floor graphics and safety signage.”
A More Creative Approach
As interest in creative wayfinding continues, another significant trend is the demand for outdoor signage. Congregating outdoors is still viewed as a safer environment, therefore we can expect increased investment in outdoor signage.
Whited of Orbus comments, “What we’re seeing is increased demand for outdoor displays and signage. For wayfinding in particular, I think that as the weather warms up, that will certainly continue. For events, we’re seeing demand in estimates and design requests for tradeshow exhibits and displays, and a lot of these venues are also considering outdoor areas. That’s going to be an opportunity for companies to use branded graphics to create retail spaces or even outdoor dining areas that are atypical. That’s here to stay, and we’re going to have to get innovative and creative, and think outside the box.”
As shifts in behavior brought about by COVID endure, rethinking the way we go about our lives in stores, hospitals, schools and colleges, offices, workplaces, and more, will inevitably lead to wayfinding signage playing an increasingly important role in the logistics. Causey explains, “We’re really seeing the outdoor aspect of our product line continue to grow, as now that more people are getting involved in floor graphics, there’s that interest in how can we take that message outside of our retail store, or outside of our schools — for example children queuing up outside — or bringing people off the sidewalk into our restaurant or into our store.”
“Customers want these signs to match their brand,” concludes Coleman of Signarama. “They want them to provide an effective and efficient message. We as the signage providers need to be ready to the best solutions — anyone can provide an A-frame style solution. And in some cases, the customer is happy with that solution. Our team strives to take it a step further and allow our client’s brand and customer experience to be noticed and experienced through the creative signage solutions we provide. As we have shifted to more of this customization, we have gained great respect and trust from our partners, since they know their brand and their business is our first priority.”
We are likely to see increased branding and marketing opportunities integrated with wayfinding and directional signage going forward, evolving in-line with COVID guidelines, as well as aspects of pandemic-related signage sticking around much longer as trends in retail, hospitality, and other markets support their purpose. Smart and creative wayfinding signage is the perfect way to convey a serious message in a way that can still be on-brand and engaging to the end user.
Karis Copp is a U.K.-based journalist and communications specialist. With a background as a writer and editor in the print industry, she writes about print and technology news and trends, reports on industry events, and works with businesses to help them tell their stories and connect with their customers. Follow her on Twitter @KarisCoppMedia.