Branding vs Wayfinding

Take a moment to imagine being lost… really lost. There is absolutely nothing of familiarity in your immediate surroundings to offer comfort from the overwhelming sense of disconcertion and resignation as the waves of panic rise. You are all at sea with not a landmark or point of reference in sight!

Just when it seems all is lost, an immediately recognisable logo is sighted on the far horizon. At the risk of providing free advertising for a famous worldwide brand, we’ll not mention any names, but that big yellow M you’ve just spotted offers immediate solace! The brand mark is, in fact, so universally recognisable that the familiarity provides a beacon to guide you back from the brink of the unknown. That fear of the unknown which previously left you paralysed, is gone and in it’s place there is a point of reference to follow, thus finding your way again.

So is branding connected to the wayfinding experience? Indeed, should it be? Are branding and wayfinding different sides of the same coin or a different currency altogether?

It’s a question that is often tabled when we sit down to discuss a new signage project, but one I fear where there is actually no definitive right or wrong answer… no definitive conclusion.

It would be difficult and perhaps misleading to disconnect the two completely – if the brand corporate colours are predominantly blue, heaven forbid a proposal to introduce a wayfinding scheme incorporating luminous orange signs. That would indeed result in complete disconnect and lack of clarity to the users. The wayfinding at least should bear some relation and a consistent colour use could be one of many subtle ways of achieving this continuity.

That said it can be equally misguided to fall into the brand overload trap and incorporate a brand logo on every wayfinding sign within a scheme. There are a number of reasons for this:

_The wayfinding message itself can become lost or diluted as it completes with the brand identity.

_Confusing or mismatched images between the brand logo and pictogram can affect the overall aesthetics.

_Increased risk of large excessive costs and expense during re-branding exercises should the brand identity change in the future.

In some instances the wayfinding sign itself has become recognisable as the emblem or ‘brand’. The white and blue motorway UK road traffic signage and other variations together with the yellow and black signage incorporated in most of the UK major airports, being two cases in point.

In an attempt to form some sort of reasonable conclusion, the brand experience and the wayfinding relationship is a complex one, but intrinsically they are connected. It is the degree of that connection that is the variable in the debate.

If, when designing a large site or building, good signage design is employed at an early stage of overall project inception then equal consideration can be given to both the brand and wayfinding elements. Thereafter an applicable level of connection can successfully achieve the desired balance and relationship between the two.

If left as an afterthought, as is often the case, there is a risk of ending up with those luminous orange signs that bear no relationship to anything and, consequently, are not quite as effective as you may imagine.


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