Choosing Colours for Wayfinding

Mark Woolmer

Colour choices can make a big difference to the impact of your wayfinding systems, incorporating recognised colours such as red to indicate risk or danger or introducing colour-coding to differentiate between parts of a building.

Great wayfinding is easy to interpret, suited to all site users and visitors, and conveys all the important information in a concise format. Putting time and thought into signage design ensures that your wayfinding performs as expected, helping visitors navigate, find resources or amenities, and confidently travel around your site, business or attraction.

Today, the Fitzpatrick Woolmer team has collated some suggestions and best practices, explaining how contrasting shades and instantly recognisable colours can improve your wayfinding and augment visitor experiences.

Public footpath sign

Why Are Colour Choices Important for Wayfinding Signage Design?

We engage with signs and instructions every day that use colours to indicate a message or to highlight the significance of a warning. Road signs and crossing guards are a great example because we instinctively know that green means go, amber means caution, and red indicates an alert or warning sign.

Blue is another widely used colour in public signage, used extensively to indicate cycle routes, taxi and bus lanes, pedestrian routes and transport networks.

The amount of attention each visitor pays to your wayfinding is directly linked to the impact and visibility of the colours you use. By selecting well-known colours or designing high-contrast lettering and backgrounds, you ensure each signage placement stands out, is immediately noticeable, and shares all the relevant information with every viewer.

For instance, if you need to prevent non-authorised attendees from entering a restricted access zone, a red sign with bold black lettering automatically indicates a sense of caution. In contrast, a green wayfinding placement may be less obvious or require a visitor to stop and read the text to understand the sign’s purpose.

Zoo Wayfinding Fingerpost

Using Colours in On-Brand Wayfinding Signage

Businesses and visitor attractions often prefer to use colours and shades that are synonymous with their brand or logo, and this can establish a feeling of cohesion, creating a professional, high-quality environment.

Regardless of your primary brand colours, it is equally important to consider how legible your signs might be or how easily a non-English-speaking visitor, a child, or a person with a sight impairment might interpret the information displayed.

Using colours that work well together makes a sign easier to read and offers clarity. It draws the eye and prevents any potential confusion about what the signage means or which directions to follow.

If you are unsure which colours to focus on, you can refer to a colour wheel. This is a quick way to see which colour combinations work well and how different tones and shades appear when next to each other. Colours that are too close together on the wheel, such as yellow and orange, are best avoided since they can be tricky to distinguish, particularly in dim light conditions or from a distance.

How to Develop High-Visibility Wayfinding Signage

Contrast is key, where any symbols, icons or logos you display jump out from the sign. While coloured text can feel more thematic, if the background shade is too bright, the contrast level can mean the words seem to disappear or ‘sink into’ the sign – the opposite of the impact you’d like to achieve.

Instead, using fonts that are sharp and crisp, and colours that are distinct from the base colour means that a viewer can read the lettering from any distance or angle. The paler the background, the darker the lettering should be, hence the use of black fonts in a great deal of wayfinding signage.

The alternative is to use a deeper background, such as dark blue, with white letters or icons that provide optimal visibility. In these signs, the font size should be exaggerated, creating the right degree of contrast.

Sign for university

Incorporating Colour Coding Into Wayfinding

Colour coding works well since it immediately shares a message or directional information without further engagement. Colour-based wayfinding is used throughout the tourism and travel industries, where signage is designed with visual cues and symbols rather than lettering to ensure wayfinding is accessible to all users.

Nature trails, airports and cruise ships are all good examples since each setting might have multiple paths or routes. They use colour-coding to provide an inclusive wayfinding approach that means visitors never get lost or experience stress and confusion attempting to locate a service or amenity.

Businesses and organisations can use colours designated to specific facilities or add wayfinding to all junctions within walking routes that use a consistent colour to point to the correct way.

Outdoor centres like parks and biking trails use this approach, creating a defined colour for each trail based on its incline, difficulty, or average anticipated walking time. This type of wayfinding can reduce the number of touchpoints required and the complexity of your signage installations since you don’t need to repeat lettering along the way.

Choosing the Right Colours for Your Wayfinding System

There are always varied factors to consider when designing a wayfinding system, and the right colour choices will depend on the nature of your site facility or business, the types of users or visitors you cater to, and any safety-based aspects.

The core aim is to provide streamlined signage that makes your site simple and stress-free to navigate, so adapting your signage to your intended viewer is essential.

Some public-access centres also need to be cautious about depending solely on colour coding since some visitors may be colour-blind, which makes some colours very difficult to differentiate between. Using distinct colours, such as green, red, blue, and black, can offer a solution.

We’d also advise you to think about where and how your wayfinding will be displayed since this may influence your signage colour choices. For example, using colour-coding signage strips on the floor might mean paler shades are less suitable since high foot traffic can quickly abrade the finish and make your signs ineffective.

For more information about choosing the best colours for your wayfinding or incorporating your brand colours into high-quality signage, please get in touch at any time. Our expert signage consultants offer a full design service and can make independent recommendations based on your objectives.

Mark Woolmer

Mark Woolmer

With a strong background in art and design, Mark is passionate about the capacity for excellent design as a communication tool, leading the Fitzpatrick Woolmer company and focusing on strategy, business development and continual improvement.

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