Kent State University Wayfinding Research

Rethinking the Campus

A Kent State University study questions some long-held assumptions about urban wayfinding.

Wayfinding is a complex and site-specific discipline that is only taught by a handful of university-level design programs. A recent course offered at Kent State University not only adopted a research-based approach to teaching the discipline, but also charted new territory in the exploration of symbols, colors, and destinations used in urban wayfinding.

In the past, only limited research had been done to test the relative effectiveness of symbols and colors on vehicle-focused wayfinding signs. The research undertaken by a team of nine Kent State students—under the direction of a high-powered panel of wayfinding experts—challenged some longstanding assumptions about the use of symbols to identify destinations.

The study framework

In 2007, Kent State University, which has more than 25,000 students and about 7,000 residents, funded a study of its campus wayfinding program. The project was conducted by nine undergraduate and graduate students in a fall 2007 Special Topics/University Wayfinding course.

The charge from the Kent State University administration was two-fold: investigate the current vehicular wayfinding signage program to optimize its effectiveness for new students and parents navigating the campus, and review the current system of mapping based on geographic district designations.

The research was conducted in two phases: a district survey and a vehicular wayfinding field test. A brief design development study followed.

To help illuminate specific wayfinding issues and frame the research process, leaders in wayfinding design and research were asked to participate as guest lecturers. David Gibson, principal of Two Twelve (New York), led a half-day workshop around mapping, campus planning, and finding the “hidden logic” of the campus organization. Wayne McCutcheon, principal of Entro Communications (Toronto), addressed color, symbols, message hierarchy, route planning, and nomenclature. Gary Stemler, vice president of Nordquist (Minneapolis), discussed sign fabrication issues. Paul Vernon of the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative addressed fundamental issues of urban planning and outlined the Kent Comprehensive Plan. Philip Garvey, research assistant with the Pennsylvania Transportation Institute, was instrumental in developing the research methodology for both the mapping surveys and field testing of the vehicular wayfinding. Craig Berger, director of education for SEGD, helped frame the overall course and was consulted throughout the term.

Phase 1: District survey

Phase 1 was analysis of the existing condition and identification of districts by which the campus could be organized for wayfinding. To prepare for this phase, students read selected chapters of The Image of the City, the seminal urban planning book by Kevin Lynch (1960). Lynch’s methodology identifies paths, landmarks, nodes, districts, and edges as organizing elements for cities. One of his innovations was the concept of place legibility, or “imageability,” which is essentially a mental map that helps people understand the layout of a place.

Through group discussions and concept drawings, students developed three new district models for organizing the campus: physical attributes, academic use, and anchor buildings. These were tested against the university’s existing district model, which is based on geographic directions (North, South, East, and Stadium).

Students created district maps for each of the models, including destinations and public gathering spaces, pedestrian and vehicular pathways, and gateways and landmarks. With guidance from Philip Garvey, David Gibson, and Craig Berger, they created a 15-page survey and administered it to about 120 subjects, including groups of commuters, resident students of various class ranking, and faculty and staff members.

In general, the survey showed that 61 percent of the respondents did not think of the campus as having distinct districts. As expected, respondents overwhelmingly agreed the campus was confusing to navigate. Key findings helped the students identify which of the district models were preferred, which individual names resonated most, and with which groups.

Overall, the academic-use model was most preferred, with a high degree of preference by freshman and resident students. Although the physical attributes model was preferred least, it was the model most highly preferred by faculty and staff, who are most familiar with campus. The existing geographic model was most highly preferred by commuters, who were likely most familiar with the existing vehicular wayfinding program, and to whom the use of direction may make more sense as they drive to campus from remote locations. A significant finding was that of the four district models tested, the least preferred model had six districts, while the others had only four.

The survey also identified preferences for individual names, reinforcing the respondents’ overall preference for the academic-use district model. Residential Campus, Math and Science, Campus Center, Arts, and Business, all scored at the top for name preferences.

Phase 2: Field testing

In Phase 2, the students conducted field testing to determine how effectively the preferred district model would facilitate vehicular wayfinding on campus. Based on the survey results, the students elected to create a preliminary district model based on academic use. It was comprised of three districts: Central Campus, Campus Living, and Front Campus.

The vehicular wayfinding field test consisted of three different scenarios. Students tested messages only (Words), messages in district clusters defined by color (Colors), and messages in district clusters defined by colors plus symbols (Symbols.) Wayne McCutcheon’s workshop addressed various wayfinding approaches, including the pros and cons of linear and spatial approaches. He was instrumental in framing the message hierarchy and route planning.

Philip Garvey of the Pennsylvania Transportation Institute led a detailed discussion on developing the specific testing procedure. This was critical to a successful field test.

The field test was executed in one day by the nine participating students and the instructor, and involved 27 subjects who were not familiar with the campus. The team measured legibility (distance), sign conspicuity, and learning over time. Subjects were also asked anecdotal questions about their sign preferences. (A full review of the testing methodology is available on the SEGD website,

Test analysis

Philip Garvey provided the analysis for the field test. He observed that there was a clear linear effect of learning for the Words (performance increases from 1-4, 5-8, 9-12). This did not seem to be the case for either Colors or Symbols. Overall, Words tested best, although the detection time between Words and Colors was not statistically significant. Over time, learning of Colors improved to become better than just Words, as can be seen by looking at the difference between the early sign readings and later sign readings. The test showed Symbols added too much information and detection times were greater throughout.

In measuring conspicuity, Words signs were nearly three times as likely to be missed than the signs with Colors. This may have been due to the monochromatic nature of the Words signs. In post-test questioning, subject responses were conclusive that they preferred Colors most.

Craig Berger stated that, prior to our study, no extensive research had ever been done to test the effectiveness of symbols and colors on signs geared to vehicular wayfinding. Our results challenged several long-held assumptions.

The first assumption—that symbols are the best way to direct people to destinations—has been promoted by traffic engineers since the 1950s. This was based on the successful use of trailblazers or simple symbols on highways. One conclusion that can be inferred from our research is that symbols are a learned language that should be used sparingly for unique projects. Symbols take longer to learn than text messages or color. That does not mean that symbols shouldn’t be used, but that they should be used sparingly for wayfinding when people are unfamiliar with them.

Our research confirmed the assumption that color is effective in wayfinding. There has been much debate on how much color can be used as a wayfinding device. It was clear from our testing—as well as the subjects’ anecdotal responses—that judicious use of color can prove very effective as a means for wayfinding at vehicular speeds.

Berger stated that our district research paralleled previous research, most notably by Kevin Lynch as documented in The Image of the City. Lynch found that most people define districts in their area by architectural or civic landmarks as well as function or use. This conclusion was reinforced by our research. Geography and compass points were much less clear than functional areas, especially if those functional areas are easy to express. However, some campuses mix residential facilities, and some campus districts are linked more architecturally than functionally. This conclusion should be tested in different situations to validate results.

Our research extended into new territory in defining how many districts people can comprehend. Our field testing showed clearly that, for people not familiar with campus, comprehension tended to taper off after four districts.

Design schematics

Based on results of the research, students developed different design scenarios for typical sign programs. Gary Stemler of Nordquist discussed issues of lighting, scheduling, bidding, design intent, fabrication techniques, and maintenance. He advised the students on various ways to increase quality, value, and durability.

While the students’ designs do not represent final design proposals, they will be helpful if a new program is undertaken. 

Lessons learned

Our study reaped significant results not only for Kent State University, but for wayfinding research in general.

For Kent State, our field testing made it easy to develop a series of design scenarios that reflect user needs and preferences. It also led to the development of a new district map for the campus. Based on other factors such as time and budget, a Words program is being implemented by the university. As a result of the process, the university’s existing vehicular signs are being changed to include new typography, new nomenclature, and revised messages. In addition, the results of our pilot study paved the way for obtaining additional funding for a new study of pedestrian wayfinding. The study also invited an open dialogue between professional designers, faculty, students, and university stakeholders. It introduced this group of graphic design students to a new method of problem solving. And perhaps most importantly, it reinforced the importance of process in the education of these students.

--By David Middleton, segdDESIGN No. 26, 2009

Editor's note: David Middleton is an associate professor of Visual Communication Design at Kent State University, coordinator of its 3D concentration, and resident faculty for the annual KSU/SEGD Summer Workshop in Environmental Graphic Design. He is a member of the SEGD Board of Directors.



Client:  Kent State University

Location:  Kent, Ohio

Design/Research:  Chris Brinson, Emir Bukva, Joseph Cola, Krystle Klink, Sharon McMullen, Natalie Pauken, Rick Salsberry, Kayne Toukonen, Lee Zelenak

Instructor:  David Middleton

Guest Lecturers:  Craig Berger, SEGD; Philip Garvey, Pennsylvania Transportation Institute; David Gibson, Two Twelve; Wayne McCutcheon, Entro; Gary Stemler, Nordquist; Paul Vernon, The Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative

Photos:  Courtesy Kent State University


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