Kolja Sam Pluemer

Understanding Great Signage #2: A word on architectural legibility (Weisman, 1981)

Summary of the research paper 'Evaluating Architectural Legibility - Way-Finding in the Build Environment'. Strategies to ensure error-free and quick wayfinding for visitors in buildings.


This is part two of my mission log to understand how signage works. Welcome (back)!

I am still at the start of this journey, so what we are basically doing is reading foundational papers on the topic with the intent of getting some lessons and ideas out of them.

If you are interested in part one, here it is. But it’s not a required read to follow along here. All the relation you have to know is that the paper we are referring today was cited in the last post of this series. Alright then, what’s it all about?

A dinosaur looking disapprovingly and shocked at a floor plan

Rating a floor plan

Evaluating Architectural Legibility - Way-Finding in the Build Environment is ironically not really about signs. Instead, it is about how people in (don’t) find their way in buildings, in general. Admittedly a bit of a tangent in the context of this series then, but I still think it’s important: After all, signs are somewhat of a stop-gap solution to bad design. If your design would explain itself, you wouldn’t need signs!

Thus, if you see signs as a solution to a problem, let’s learn a bit about how the problem arises in the first place.

General considerations

An interesting aspect the paper brings up is the fact that most architectural structures are too big to be envisioned as one thing when you visit then. Applied to signage, this begs the question: To which slice of the whole thing does my sign relate? To which percentage should it relate? Feels kinda obvious, but I don’t think I ever thought about it like that.

Building on this thought credited to Kaplan (1973, 1976), the following factors are presumed to matter a lot:

  • Signage provided (ha-ha, it’s relevant after all!)
  • Ability to see through or out of a setting (that one sounds a bit ominous, but I think I get what it means)
  • How much locations differ from each other
  • The overall layout

Out of the four, Weisman wants to focus on the last one. Unlucky, but lets see what we can take away in regards to signage anyways.

Key findings

  • Interestingly, the study finds no clear relationship between familiarity with a building and ease of wayfinding. That means we can’t - and signs can’t either - just focus on increasing the knowledge of the user and then all will be fine. Alright!
  • Simplicity of a floor plan shows a fat correlation with wayfinding ease. I am not an architect, but I would be so brazen and propose that a similar concept can be applied to other stuff, say, website interfaces: Have a simple architecture and save yourself pain later!

That about summarizes it, I think. If you happen to be interested in wayfinding or building navigation or floor plan legibility, this paper has a lot more to offer, and I can recommend a read of the original.

In any case: See you next time!

Thanks for reading! This post is part of my series of reading and summarizing papers, mostly relating to UX. I use a casual tone because that’s the most fun to me. That means my interpretation of a given paper may be off. Or incomplete. Or plain wrong. Always think for yourself, and for the love of God, don’t cite this in an academic context. Use the original article instead. Cheers!