Wayfinding my way to a solid design sense

What makes for a good sign?

It’s important to remember that good design tells a good story. And signage is no different. Signs should let a customer know exactly what a store is about or help a person through their journey of finding a location. Signs should be:

  • clear and concise
  • intuitive
  • scalable to distance
  • distinctive

Reading the Slate article on the signage at Penn Station really illuminated how signage can go wrong.  It was almost laughable how the three train companies at Penn Station don’t consult each other on their customer experience. But it reminded me of how designers at my previous company would encounter a similar problem.

Our company had both marketing designers and product designers, assigned to optimize the pre-signup and post-signup experience, respectively. They were all very talented designers, but our company faced a crisis when our user experience began to feel very disconnected. Nobody was assigned to think of the user experience as a whole, and our customers suffered for it. None of the designers were sure which step in the user experience served as the demarcation between marketing designers and product designers, so nobody took control of that experience. Only until someone was charged to think about the user experience as a whole did we begin to see some positive change.

This week for our Visual Language class, we had to look for some examples of bad signage in the real world.

Before I dive into some bad signs, here’s a sign that I really liked.


This sign is clear and concise. With just 9 characters, I understand that this is a dentist’s office that is open for 365 days of the year. The font that is used is clear and well-sized. The logo is also drawn well, as it helps portray that this particular dentist’s office cares about my teeth.

The first example of bad signage I found was outside a Chinese grocery store in Flushing, NY.


bad_groceries_2While these signs are concise, the message is not clear. The words in the sign do not match up with the images. Those tomatoes are not frozen and those fish do not look alive. These signs are at the front of the grocery store, so it’s important that these images be alluring. These signs do not achieve this effect.


Just down the block, I found a sign with a similar error. I understand that this ATM means 24 hours, but the typo threw me for a loop. That it belonged to a national brand made it even more confusing. They could have easily fit “hours” into that sign, but this error didn’t seem to be a big enough deal for them to fix.


These orange signs are oddly placed. The sidewalk closed sign points an arrow to the right, but the lane closed sign points to the left. I felt cross-eyed looking at these repetitive signs. The arrow should be placed right under “Use pedestrian walkway” as that is really what the arrow is pointing at.


Following the theme of misguided arrows, I found this sign at the Chelsea Piers Sports House. They have an indoor track that runs the perimeter of the venue inside. I couldn’t understand what the point of this sign was or why they felt the need to change directions every day. If I were laced up and eager to start my run, I would never look at this sign, and maybe I’d get hurt because of it. A jogger’s first instinct when she enters a track isn’t to read the signs on the wall.

To fix the sign, I thought about getting rid of the daily schedule all together, as that was what made the least sense. But I felt that I should give the gym the benefit of the doubt that there’s a method to their madness. So, I aligned the arrows to their respective sides and color coded the days so that they were easier to see.


Again, I would probably get rid of the arcane rule to switch directions, but with the given constraints, I think this sign more quickly conveys to a jogger the direction they should run.