From Signs to Minds

Practice Area


Project Vision

How could wayfinding signage be designed to not only help people get from one place to another, but also help them learn about the layout of their environment along the way? Michaela Skiles, a student at Middlebury College (Middlebury, Vt.) investigated this question through a two-stage project of design and evaluation, completed over the course of her undergraduate geography thesis and published in the Cartographic Journal.

 In the design stage, Skiles created a style of directional sign that she predicted would facilitate spatial learning, informed by spatial cognition research and examples of existing guide signs around the world. Using FHWA guidelines as a foundation, these signs showed the intersecting roads and nearby towns in a simple map. Because maps require travelers to translate the information provided in a bird’s-eye perspective into an appropriate turn action, Skiles predicted that people would retain more spatial information through wayfinding with these signs than with conventional directional signs. In the experiment she developed to evaluate these signs, participants viewed a series of signs as if travelling through a fictional environment, making turn decisions at each junction to reach assigned goals. They then completed an unanticipated mapping task to demonstrate their understanding of the configuration of roads and towns. Participants viewing the signs with maps showed a significantly better understanding of the connectivity of roads and towns than those viewing the conventional sign types. These results suggest that simple maps on signs can help people learn about the layout of their environment incidentally during travel.
Although Skiles used U.S. highway signage as the foundation for her signs, the use of maps on guide signs applies to many other contexts beyond the highway, from urban bicycle routes to public transportation. The uniting theme is a long-term, holistic approach to wayfinding guidance by incorporating simple maps into directional signs.

Project Details
This is a solid, formal student research project. SEGD can benefit from supporting and directing empirical research by students that contributes to the EGD knowledge base.
Juror 1
Research of this caliber and peer review deserves an acknowledgment, as it critically examines and advances the EGD field. The hypothesis questions a vital area of cartographic signage. Whether you agree or disagree, the study challenges certain assumptions about the way we navigate our environment and that makes analysis like this vitally important for EGD.
Juror 2
Design Team

Instructor: Jeff Howarth (Thesis Advisor)Author, Michaela Skiles