Arts & Design

Finding our way: Signs and symbols point to a safe return to public life

As people step back into stores, airports, and public spaces, signage plays a crucial role in keeping everyone healthy and safe.

By Janelle Zara — September 3, 2020

Today, public space is full of unfamiliar features: plastic partitions, mask requirements, and rules that dictate how far apart to stand, how many people can be in a space, and even in what direction we can walk down an aisle or hallway. Sign designers face an unprecedented challenge: to help us understand our way around a world that’s fundamentally different from the one we left when the pandemic hit. Now more than ever, wayfinding signs are becoming a surprisingly crucial backdrop to ease our return to public life.  

“As the world attempts to reopen, signage plays a critical new role,” says Guayente Sanmartin, general manager of HP’s large format graphics business. 

On our way to buy groceries, renew our licenses, or just to spend time in our neighborhood parks, new wayfinding signs — one-way arrows, decals that say “stand here,” and much more — pack a world of information into a single glance, providing the assurance that we’re headed in the right direction. For businesses, Sanmartin adds, “signage communicates a message of safety, calm, and care” that puts customers at ease during this uncertain time.

Why we need effective wayfinding

The goal of a wayfinding sign is to clearly and concisely tell people where they are and where they ought to be going, without getting in their way. 

“Although we had solutions for when people could move around normally, we know that we can't use those same solutions,” says Cesar Sanchez, managing director of the New York office of Netherlands-based wayfinding firm Mijksenaar

Mijksenaar signs remind passengers to keep their distance on the Dutch railway system.


Netherlands-based wayfinding firm Mijksenaar recently provided the Dutch railway system with resources to communicate its social distancing rules.

To achieve this type of clarity, there are certain “principles of wayfinding” that graphic designers follow, according to Sanchez. Informed by observations on human behavior, including patterns of movement between point A and point B, how the eye travels, how people respond to different typefaces and more, the Dutch company defines its approach to signage with a set of parameters it calls “the five C’s”: Clear, consistent, comprehensive, conspicuous, and catchy.

“The sign should be where you would expect it — easy to find but not in-your-face,” Sanchez says. “It should distinguish itself from the ‘visual noise’ it may be surrounded by, but not contribute to it.” 

Silvia Perez, vice president and general manager of 3M’s commercial solutions division, an HP partner, agrees, noting that the best sign is often the simplest. “It’s important for the graphics to be as intuitive as possible,” she says. 

Mijksenaar has been proactive in adapting its approach, having recently provided the Dutch railway system with resources to communicate its new rules of service. The wayfinding toolkit comprises uniform yellow-and-black signs that indicate one-way traffic, four-stair social distancing for escalators, two-person limits for elevators, and more.

Thanks to the use of a few simple symbols — arrows, stick figures, and slashes — Mijksenaar’s signs are legible whether you speak Dutch or not. But Sanchez notes that in addition to universally understood icons, graphic designers also must pay careful attention to their word choice. 

“A good sign is just the right information, at just the right time.”

— Hamish Smyth, designer

“We’re tempted to say, ‘Don’t do that,’ or, ‘Don’t sit here’,” he says. “But it would be nicer if you say, ‘Hey! Sit over here.’ Spinning the message to a positive is a matter of tone and friendliness, a part of the brand identity of a place.” In Southern California, for example, at Mission San Juan Capistrano, known for its yearly swallow migration, recently adopted a sign that conveyed both a welcoming tone and a part of its identity: a cartoon swallow outfitted with a mask. Outside the La Brea Tar Pits museum in Los Angeles, signs on the ground offer a friendly reminder to “stay one saber-toothed cat apart.”

New signals lead to new behaviors

Just as new phrases like “social distancing” and “flattening the curve” have become broadly understood as shorthand for more complex ideas, New York-based designer Hamish Smyth says the visual language of the coronavirus is evolving just as quickly. The “stand here” signs that previously graced the checkout lines of grocery stores, for example, were soon simplified to a pair of feet, then eventually basic spots.

“A good sign is just the right information, at just the right time,” he says, and so, “designers love to reduce things down to as few points of communication as we can.” 

Everything from the placement to the typeface of an effective sign is intentionally chosen; simple, sans-serif styles, for example, are easier to read from a distance, and some typefaces have shown to read more authoritatively than others.

Clear wayfinding signs can remind people to practice social distancing and maintain good hygiene habits when they are in public spaces.


Clear wayfinding signs can remind people to practice social distancing and maintain good hygiene habits when they are in public spaces.

“A lot of the principles we use now have been honed over centuries,” says Smyth. “You can make type more readable just by setting it left aligned, for instance,” while incorporating icons makes signs more universally understood. This is especially useful in multilingual cities like Miami, where one of Smyth’s clients is The Underline, a new 10-mile linear park planned for below the city’s elevated railway tracks.

Smyth says that part of the challenge of wayfinding design today is the uncertainty of the present moment. This fall, when The Underline is slated to open its first mile, he’ll likely have to reassess his designs based on current public health guidelines.

Providing an essential resource for businesses

To help businesses navigate new protocols for public health, HP recently teamed up with 3M to assemble an online library of coronavirus-specific safety and wayfinding signs that clearly and concisely communicate social distancing rules with few words. These colorful, professionally designed window decals, floor and carpet graphics, posters, and more are available to print service providers for free through the HP PrintOS or HP Applications Center.

The signs feature a palette of primary colors, simple iconography, and clear messaging designed to help businesses make their customers feel “safe, confident, and comfortable in public spaces,” says 3M’s Perez. “With all the uncertainty of returning to public spaces, graphics and signage is one thing that doesn't need to be complicated or difficult to understand.”

Although wayfinding signs often go unnoticed, right now they have the power to do tremendous good not only by helping us navigate physical space, but by providing reassurance that we’re on the right track.

“Designers have to put forth a special effort to communicate safety and to communicate kindness,” Sanmartin says. “The beauty of signage is that it creates a space of values,” reminding people that the place they’re visiting cares not only about their business, but also about their safety. 


See how small retailer businesses are adapting and connecting with customers in new ways.