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Meet a Nice Doctor with Hospital Wayfinding

By Graphic Products Editorial Staff

Every now and then, grandmothers everywhere make appointments to see their doctors, and bring photographs of their single grandchildren. They mean well. It’s not easy for a young person to meet a nice doctor these days. In fact—have you been to a hospital recently?—it’s not easy for anyone to meet any doctor.

Part of the problem is just finding them. Hospitals are known for being big, sprawling buildings, and new wings and annexes are added constantly. Departments constantly move from one place to another.

In addition to the maze of hallways and the changing room assignments, the buildings are unfamiliar to most visitors. About 15% of Americans surveyed in 2010 hadn’t visited a healthcare facility for at least twelve months, and more than half of the survey participants had made 3 or fewer trips in that time. The staff who work there certainly see the building often enough, but the average patient simply doesn’t.

People visiting hospitals sometimes take their time, showing off photos of their grandchildren as they go, but more often, patients can’t afford to be patient. In those same surveys, 21% of the participants had gone to the emergency room at least once in the year. Visits to the ER are not a walking tour!

All of these visitors need some way to get to the right place. The most common way to provide directions is with signage; a sign in front of the Cardiology department reads “Cardiology.” The weakness of these signs is their reliance on reading at a distance. It’s difficult to recognize words—especially long and unusual words, which are common in hospitals—from a distance.

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Hospital Wayfinding

It’s even harder to recognize words when you don’t speak the language. In the past, facility managers have tried to solve this problem with translated signs. This means cramming even more text on every sign, which just makes them harder for everyone to read. Translated signs also need more attention whenever a department moves or expands. If the person moving the sign doesn’t know what it means, the new sign might be posted in the wrong place, and patients looking for Pediatrics can end up in Podiatry.

As a way to solve these problems, a project called Signs That Work was created. Two organizations cooperated: Hablamos Juntos (Spanish for “We Speak Together”) and the Society for Environmental Graphic Design (SEGD). Over the course of the project, the organizations researched, developed, and tested a set of symbols to help people find their way in hospitals and other healthcare facilities.

The resulting set of symbols are easy to recognize. They include a microscope for the laboratory, an eye for the ophthalmology department, and a classic valentine heart for cardiology. These symbols are bold and simple—perfect for recognizing from a distance, and independent of any spoken language.

In the testing phase of the project, the symbols were found to be even more effective than expected. When patients in a test location had only symbols to look for, they actually walked about 20% faster than when they had text signs! The patients were finally confident that they were going the right way, with no confusion from unreadable text.

Because the symbols were intended to be part of a bigger system of “wayfinding,” they work well with other common symbols, like the well-known “No Smoking” sign. To help facilities manage their wayfinding projects, the complete set of symbols from Signs That Work is included as part of Graphic Products’ library of templates and symbols. That library is included with software that accompanies each DuraLabel label and sign printer.

Graphic Products hosts a number of informative articles on topics like recommended marking for emergency exits and the four types of wayfinding signs. With an improved signage system, hospitals could help each patient meet the doctor of their dreams—or at least find one to check out that mole.


Hamblamos Juntos. Universal Symbols in Health Care - Workbook

National Center for Health Statistics. Health, United States, 2012