I’ve seen a lot of beautiful, intelligent, patient-focused wayfinding systems in new and renovated facilities. These hospitals incorporate color and symbolism, flooring and ceiling cues, and easily identifiable landmarks. When implemented thoughtfully, this kind of comprehensive approach is very effective not only for wayfinding, but also in creating a solid branding statement that can be adapted and expanded as necessary in the future.

But the single most important factor in any wayfinding system? Signage. It’s no contest.

Since I started covering healthcare, all the color-coding and flooring cues and symbols in a healthcare facility really jump out at me, and I can follow those cues with ease on a facility tour or on a repeat visit as a patient.

But when I’m a new patient, or the mother or visitor of a patient, those elements are supplemental at best. If I’m visiting a hospital for the first time—or maybe for the first time in a while, or it’s a department I’m unfamiliar with—I’m there with an illness or injury to be addressed. All I care about is getting where I need to go, quickly. If I’m walking along, trying to find Unit C, and suddenly I notice I’ve gone from a blue area to a yellow one, then I know I’ve entered a new zone. But where? My eyes immediately seek out the signs.

The Wall Street Journal published an article about hospital wayfinding this week, with advice and examples from recently renovated facilities on new approaches to guiding the patient/visitor journey. (Whether or not all these approaches are "new"—well, not necessarily.) A lot of this advice centers on signage. Rapid City Regional Hospital in South Dakota, for example, changed the wording on its signs from medical jargon (e.g., antepartrum and postpartum services) to layman’s terms (labor and delivery). At elevator banks and on different floors, the facility borrowed a tactic from airport design, with signs modeled on an “approach of ‘progressive disclosure,’ giving patients only the information they need to get to the next step in their destination. A sign at the West Elevator, for example, directs people to the second floor that includes all maternity and pediatric departments. Once on the floor, there are signs with directional arrows to individual departments.”

Airports and hospitals have one very important thing in common: Lots of anxious visitors trying to find their way, many of whom have never (or rarely) been there. So this kind of thinking makes sense.

The conversation around digital signage, electronic kiosks, and app-based wayfinding in healthcare settings is gaining steam, and the WSJ article addresses that, too. These kinds of solutions are already in play at facilities such as the Cleveland Clinic, and there’s no question we’ll be seeing them more and more as technology evolves. While personalized digital applications have the potential to really simplify things for patients, you know how it goes with technology: They also have the potential to make anxious visitors—especially those who are older and/or less comfortable with the digital world—feel lost before the journey even begins. We’re a long way from completely tech-driven wayfinding, and determining the right mix of digital and traditional signage is critical.

Anticipation of anxiety should be the starting point for considering how to create effective wayfinding, and that means straightforward, simple, and clear directions. Unless there’s a staffer standing by every entrance who volunteers to guide a patient exactly to his or her destination—and some facilities are doing this to a degree, as well—signage is the first thing anxious visitors look for. The wording, the font, the colors, the size and shape of the sign itself, location on the wall or ceiling—all of these elements need considerable study and attention up front. With each decision made, the most important question is: Is the end result simple and clear? Those signage factors should never be compromised to serve a broader aesthetic or branding goal.

A comprehensive wayfinding approach is invaluable; it’s especially helpful for staff and repeat visitors/patients, and it can reinforce the first-time visitor’s ability to get around, especially if she does take a wrong turn somewhere. But for truly patient-centered design, the first step is simple: Just follow the signs.

For more advice and ideas on wayfinding, signage, and the never-ending challenge of maintaining clear directionals as a facility grows or changes, we’ve  got plenty of articles on the site—including Jennifer Kovacs Silvis’s “Minding The Myths Of Healthcare Wayfinding” and “Wayfinding: The Healthcare Campus Conundrum,” and Rosalyn Cama’s “Ask The Right Questions Before You Design Wayfinding.”