Signage outside the new Museum of Bristol (M Shed). True North

Developing effective signage

Simon Stephens, 15.12.2010
Simon Stephens looks at some key principles for developing effective museum wayfinding systems

Museum and gallery signage has developed into something much more than just pointing people in the right direction and preventing them from getting lost. Museums are increasingly using technology such as the internet and mobile phone applications as well as digital signage to enhance the visitor experience and customise it to people’s needs.

Design and branding consultancy Endpoint has worked on wayfinding projects for clients such as the Great North Museum, the British Museum, the Women’s Library and Somerset House. Creative director Graham Erickson says that whereas signage in a hospital, for example, is purely functional, in other places (such as retail environments) the aim is not to direct too effectively, so people come across new areas of the store and therefore new products that they might buy.

“I would place a museum somewhere between these two extremes,” says Erickson. “A museum should hold some sense of discovery for a visitor – if the information is too concise then an element of the learning by discovery process is diminished.”

One of the problems museums often have is they want to include lots of information in their signage, and the demands of sponsors, funders and other stakeholders also have to be considered. This can lead to cluttered and confusing signage.

Erickson recommends an approach that keeps things simple, for the visitors at least.

“Visitors’ expectations of signage are only thrown into the light when signage is poor or absent,” he says. “Effective signage allows them to largely navigate an environment without anxiety. Good quality, well-researched wayfinding design needs no quick gimmicks to deliver a message. The inclusion of an excess of these devices leads to erosion of the line dividing museums and theme parks.”

Museum branding has also become more important to many museums and galleries, and this has to be effectively integrated into the signage.

True North developed the branding for the £12.5m People’s History Museum, which opened in Manchester last year, and has also carried out identity work for Bristol Museums, which is unveiling its £26.5m Museum of Bristol (M Shed) in spring 2011.

Alan Herron, creative director at True North, says branding and signage are not always as well integrated as they should be. He recommends museums find a balance between directing people around and getting over the personality of the brand.

“There can be a strange dichotomy between the branding and the wayfinding,” Herron explains. “We see them as inseparable. The brand has to always be present but it should be quite subtle.”

While signage might not always been seen as important as a museum’s collection, displays and interpretation, it's worth remembering that a visit can be ruined by a poor wayfinding system that leaves people feeling confused or frustrated.