Wayfinding’s Return on Investment: Five Facts

Read Time: 7 minutes

Today, when the margins of many industries are razor-thin, there is a strategic, market-driven imperative for innovation. But where can businesses and organizations find the resources to fund and fuel innovation? Better designed and more efficient wayfinding systems—including those used to navigate college campuses, business parks, performing arts centers and healthcare complexes—can provide areas for savings. SEGD member and contributing writer Mark Vanderklipp (via Forcade Associates) describes how.

Improved wayfinding systems can help the bottom line, allowing organizations to save money and invest more funds into mission-driven projects. These five facts suggest that a well-designed, proactive and comprehensive wayfinding strategy not only saves money, but also improves the experiences of both staff and visitors.

1 – Wayfinding: It’s used by everyone.

Along with HVAC and lighting—and the occasional need for a restroom—a wayfinding system is a ubiquitous utility; everyone at some point will use it. And like other utilities, when it’s not working well, you know it immediately—and you hear about it until the problem is resolved.

A call center conversation, a mobile application, a pre-visit letter, campus boundary signage, entrance architecture, a hand-held map—all of these are wayfinding utilities, and each needs to be connected fully to the core logic to function efficiently.

But unlike other utilities, wayfinding allows you to directly address your culture’s unique aspects. The language you use—whether greeting people with a friendly hello, referencing a donor-named campus building or using an acronym for a specific area—is part of this wayfinding utility. And it’s important that new staff and visitors understand this language because they may not know your cultural codes.

In the end, a wayfinding system is a utility that enlists everyone, and if designed and implemented correctly, everyone understands the logic, language and tools; they know how to use those tools and can teach others how to use them as well.

“By the time we’re relying on signage, we’ve already failed that patient in 15 other ways. It’s a system—a philosophy—an intellectual concept. Wayfinding isn’t only about signage!

— Former Director of Construction and Facility Planning, Gundersen Health System, LaCrosse, WI

2 – Well designed wayfinding saves money.

What does it cost when people can’t find their way? An early study of wayfinding at Emory University Hospital estimated that more than $400,000 (in 2021 dollars) is wasted per year. This primarily includes lost staff time, missed appointments and other functional realities; but in truth, there’s no telling how much potential value is lost to patients choosing to use or recommend another provider or staff members’ frustration leading to turnover.

In terms of logistics, a diversified wayfinding system can save other hard costs as well:

  • Introduce intuitive wayfinding cues to entrances, elevator cores and other key transition points in early planning with architects and engineers, saving design costs down the line,
  • Reduce the need for static exterior and interior signage by including more digital tools such as mobile apps and kiosks, and
  • Reduce the number of paid interpreters and volunteers needed to escort and direct visitors.

When digital can’t be used and static signage is required, designers can enable control from a central department with a system of consistent standards and a comprehensive data set.

For example, one of my former clients in a previous role, Gundersen Health System (LaCrosse, Wisconsin) implemented a method for printing low-cost inserts, in house. They estimate that at least 50 percent of the original signage inserts have been redone more than once. An interior designer working on the project contends, “If we hadn’t had that ability, we would have paid for new signage two, three or four times over.”

“The methodology put in place is delivering a qualitative value far in excess of what we ever spent on signage,” asserts the hospital.

3 – Wayfinding builds team cohesion. (Everyone can contribute!)

You can impact the culture of an organization by building a team focused on wayfinding. In our projects at Forcade Associates, we bring together a diverse, interdisciplinary team from all levels and job descriptions who may have never met before. Each shares stories from their own perspective about wayfinding challenges. Collectively, they see the scale of the problem and its impact on both staff and visitors. The group members then work together to change a system that they may have assumed could never be changed.

It’s critical to recruit as many voices as possible to assist in understanding specific challenges, and we typically recruit core team members from areas as diverse as patient experience, marketing & communications, IT, facilities and upper management. Voices from within and around the organization work together in a collaborative partnership if networked together efficiently and effectively and are given access to others who have different information and knowledge.

As a result, answers to wayfinding challenges come from within the culture rather than imposed from the outside. Forcade provides neutral facilitation along with decades of wayfinding experience, resulting in productive conversations.

People support what they help create. Cross-disciplinary involvement in co-designing the wayfinding strategy leads team members to share with their peers, cementing the new logic within the culture. When uninitiated peers or guests need help, proactive training makes each interaction a potential teachable moment. This helps us understand how the system needs to be structured and implemented.

4 – Well designed wayfinding solves problems before they happen.

How do you measure the positive cost impact of an event that never occurred due to proactive planning? In his book Upstream (2020) Dan Heath shares multiple examples of upstream interventions designed to solve complex problems before they even happen. In this way, experiential design—including wayfinding—can be compared to public relations. Business leaders clearly understand the value of investing in PR. Similarly, an investment in proactive assessment and experience design can visualize potential problem areas.

Upstream dedicates a chapter to building a mindset of preventive investments and their future returns. The upshot: preventative work may not lead to short-term tangible results, which can be difficult to measure. Instead, patience, discipline and consistency will help assure that preventative investments eventually pay off. And they do, often exponentially. 

A well-designed wayfinding strategy simplifies and standardizes a system of communications and behaviors that lessen confusion and stress for staff and visitors. Like PR, it takes knowledgeable professionals to make necessary adjustments to the system as factors change over time. But unlike PR, it’s an investment made for the benefit of those least capable of understanding and navigating their experience. This leads us to our fifth fact regarding wayfinding’s return on investment.

5 – It’s the right thing to do.

“Early on in the project we tried hard to find data, measures and metrics that we could use to validate our business plan. We had to come to terms with the fact that we couldn’t put a [monetary] value on the patient experience or our success in managing the degree of change we anticipated. We had to ask ourselves, ‘Is it the right thing to do conceptually? Is it going to benefit our patients?’”  — Former Director of Construction and Facility Planning, Gundersen Health System, LaCrosse, WI

The former director provided further perspective on the Upstream mindset. “We knew that we should be concerned with the amount of staff time spent giving directions, but maybe we weren’t going to find a piece of data to validate this,” she continued. “Instead, we saw the potential improvements to the patient experience as an important part of our outward value proposition and our internal core values. We then proceeded with managing costs and maximizing the value of the outcomes as the design process rolled out.”

Like any complex problem with multiple causal factors, it can be difficult to fully quantify the specific benefits of a wayfinding system. For each of Forcade’s clients, their success is due to the broad approach that the team takes to the entire range of wayfinding communications and the individual responsibility of people within an organization to support the visitor experience.

Working together to build a flexible infrastructure for managing constant change is an investment worth making. Doing this allows you to stay true to the spirit of your organizational mission and value proposition. And that, friends, is priceless.


 

Mark VanderKlipp is an experience and systems designer, facilitator and writer working in human-centered graphic design for over 34 years. He helps organizations visualize, then meaningfully impact the systems within which they function.

A Systems Practice consultant since 2016, he leads diverse teams on a process of discovery to visualize the “wicked problem,” creating the context for the conversation. Mark has partnered with experts in youth and adult homelessness, child sexual abuse prevention, farm to school and K-12 education initiatives.

The original blog post can be found here at the Forcade Associates website: https://forcadedesign.com/five-facts-underscore-wayfinding-roi

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