Finding our way around unfamiliar environments such as visiting large hospitals, or other similar public buildings, can be daunting and difficult for most people in general. For older people and people living with dementia, the prospect of wayfinding in these types of places can be particularly stressful – from locating the correct entrance, the reception desk, relevant waiting areas, toilets, wards, treatment rooms and cafes or other facilities.
The legibility of an environment is closely related to the visual information that is provided. For people with dementia, it is particularly important that the design of the signage not only highlights useful information but also, to avoid confusion, reduces the extent of non-critical and unhelpful information.
Hierarchy of Information
The most prominent signs in a building should primarily be designed to meet the needs of new visitors to the building. Emphasise the key directional information first and foremost, followed by identifying signs and symbols, then with further detailed informative signage.
Operational building information, such as room numbers for staff rooms, or areas that do not need to be accessed by an unchaperoned building visitor / patient, should be subtle and not detract from the primary visitor information. This type of signage could be placed a higher level and have less visual contrast than signs required to be used by visitors / patients.
Consider the hierarchy of information on signage, for example, what is the essential information needed for new visitors to the building? Simplify the primary directional signage to groups of types of rooms for example, ‘Wards’, ‘Toilets’, ‘Lifts’, ‘Treatment Rooms’. The more specific information relating to room numbers or room use types can then be signed in more detail at the location itself, in order to offer the most relevant information required in the most relevant context.
A useful tool for determining the hierarchy of signage is to classify the information under the following themes:
1. Primary / Directional (including arrows, showing the way around)
2. Identifying (aiding understanding and orientation)
3. Informative (what to find on a particular floor, area or space)
4. Operational (staff only zones or room numbers relevant only for maintenance purposes)
What to sign / What not to sign
Wayfinding in general will be improved through highlighting relevant information, while simultaneously removing features that erode the clarity of the key information. Presenting excess information makes it more difficult to decipher what is relevant. A common example of this type of excess signage is the presence of ad-hoc informal signs, perhaps added over time, to indicate operational information or notice board type leaflets.
People with dementia need to work constantly to make sense of their surroundings. Avoid Trompe-l’oeil effects, two dimensional scenes that mimic three dimensional environments, usually rendered in a realistic way and large scale for example forest scenes or wall-paper bookcases. False scenes like these can add to confusion and disorientation thereby increasing anxiety and potentially distressed behaviour.
Design Features of Good Practice for Signage
Signs should be legible and use recognisable symbols or pictograms. Colour and tonal contrast (Light Reflectance Values) should be considered in relation to the context of the sign. Font sizes should be appropriately sized depending on what distance the signs will be read, ie; longer distances will require larger font sizes.
Position signs at a height of 1.2m from the floor plane to the base of the sign – this is the ideal ergonomic height for older people with a slightly stooped gaze. Within larger scale spaces, such as foyers or hospital waiting areas, it becomes likely that crowds of people might visually obscure low-level signage when viewed from a distance. To combat this, consider in addition to normal signage, the inclusion of large format high level signs which can be seen more easily over the heads of groups of other people.
For more top tips on improving signage and wayfinding, visit our environment section on the dementia information hub, or find more practical solutions in our resource: 10 tips on signage for dementia available in print or kindle.