Color in Wayfinding and Placemaking

Updated: Jul 29, 2020

A primary concern for brands is color. No matter what industry a brand is part of, from retail to corporate to educational to non-profit, color matters.

As leaders in the fields of placemaking and experiential marketing, major brands in the for-profit realm teach valuable brand identity lessons. The focus on color, therefore, is something that anyone in the wayfinding or placemaking fields should pay attention to.

blue and red interpretive panels with custom powder-coated graphics on aluminum
Interpretive panels at the Rideau Canal Promenade, Ottawa, ON

Another critical element in wayfinding is telling visitors to any given space about its identity or brand. It creates a stronger user experience when the signage, colors, icons, from the largest elements to the smallest, are consistent and make sense for the space.

When choosing colors for a wayfinding or placemaking project, there are issues to consider than go beyond traditional concerns for information communication and visibility.

Climate: is it hot and sunny, consistently rainy, or covered in snow for lengthy period? The local environment often plays into color choice, think bright colors in tropical environments and more muted tones in temperate areas.
Competition: Are there other signs or sign systems around? It’s unlikely that a wayfinding or placemaking project will have the option to remove all existing elements and replace them with the newly-designed items.
Culture: Colors can have radically different meanings from one culture to the next (black, white and red are well-known examples of cultural confusion). Even though times are changing, some colors still carry gendered meanings that can vary a sign’s impact.
Contrast: It is suggested that visibility is peak when there is a 70% contrast between text and background. This also applies to the environment around a sign or panel- you can choose to stand out or blend in. Bright colors stand out in forest environments, but greens and browns harmonize with the natural environment.

green powder-coated graphic interpretive panel with photos of birds

Part of wayfinding and placemaking is orienting people, telling them where they are, where to go, and how to get there. Color is a great way to communicate all sorts of information and calls a viewers’ attention more effectively than text. Color is one of the most effective “You Are Here” markers a wayfinding and placemaking design can implement. 

powder coated graphics wayfinding sign with map of park and icons

What at first glance may not seem as important as bigger elements like architecture, decor, signage, integrated technology or special effects, color has unparalleled psychological power over a viewer. Make sure not to leave it as a design after-thought.

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Creativity in a Material World

Interview with Wayfinding Designer Matthias Reinicke

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