This email is from Doris at the economic development department of a small city in Washington State, “Should we proceed with our city’s new wayfinding system before we finish the brand research process that is about to start? Some councilors are asking whether the wayfinding designs might work as our city brand. ”
Doris, I would strongly suggest that you wait until the brand planning process is complete. Otherwise, this could become a case of placing the cart before the horse! Just as some make the mistake of confusing a logo with a brand, some confuse the design of a wayfinding system as being their community brand. A brand is much more than a design, and branded wayfinding is more than a series of attractively designed signs. A branded wayfinding system should be inspired by, and integral to, the community’s brand strategy. Not the other way around!
There is a symbiotic relationship between the brand and the wayfinding system. It ties the brand to the physical environment and creates an emotional attachment for people by creating familiarity and reassurances as well as new experiences and encounters. Branded wayfinding provides an added level of benefits and purpose to an otherwise generic signage or wayfinding system. In addition to its basic functionality in providing orientation and navigation, a branded system introduces personality, storytelling, and arouses the senses and stimulates emotions through its connection to the core values of the city brand. This contributes toward a deeper relationship between the place and its key audiences.
In order for a wayfinding system to support a brand and provide outstanding experiences at critical touchpoints, a city brand should be fully developed and ready for implementation before the first visual concept for wayfinding is explored. A brand is the nucleus around which all communications, including wayfinding and key experiences must revolve. A branded wayfinding system is inspired by the priorities, logo, colors, key words, style, fonts, emotional benefits, and personality outlined in the brand manual and visual identity style guides.
Imagine entering a McDonald’s restaurant, Starbucks store, or Shell service station and being greeted by completely unfamiliar products, designs, colors, services and symbols. Meaningful brands don’t display this type of dissonance or schizophrenia. However, this is a common occurrence in how many places present themselves. This most commonly happens where decision-makers within a city are confined to their organizational silos (and their associated budgets) and set out to design a wayfinding system from scratch without reference to the destination or community brand. The result is a disconnect on many levels between the communications that prospective visitors receive before arrival and the nature of the city and its wayfinding system.
This is a situation that Doris and her city should avoid at all costs.