Sustainable Wayfinding Design: Taking a Whole Lifecycle Approach

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In previous posts exploring sustainable wayfinding design, we’ve focussed on material selection and the importance of investing time to develop robust future-proofed strategies. In this, we turn our attention to design strategies for minimising the environmental impact throughout the lifecycle of a wayfinding signage system. Focussing on:

  • Design – dematerialisation opportunities
  • Ongoing maintenance – strategies for minimising information updates
  • End of life – recovery of materials for reuse or recycling

Dematerialisation of Wayfinding Signs

As well as the material used in the actual sign, the fabrication process will generate waste material.  Applying individual letters/graphics directly to walls, rather than on a separate substrate that is then fixed to a wall, is an obvious way for reducing material use. But there will be many instances where this approach will not be appropriate e.g., lack of appropriate walls in the right location or cleaning/maintenance concerns.

If the brief is to refresh an existing implementation, reusing existing sign forms and updating the graphics with a new design is an obvious route. Repurposing existing materials sourced from other applications, is another, albeit tricky option. With the continued advances in 3D printing, it is anticipated that this technology will also have a role to play in reducing production waste.

Example of apartment directional information applied as individual numbers and symbols to the wall
Large supergraphic of a shower and a male toilet symbol painted directly on the wall in the basement of 20 Fenchurch St

Examples of signs where the information is applied directly onto the wall surface – minimising the amount of additional material introduced into a building.

Minimising Waste

Towns, cities, places and even individual buildings are in continual flux. Amenities and infrastructure will evolve; tenants will move out and new ones move in; and routes will change. No matter how well planned a wayfinding scheme, sooner or later the information will need updating to reflect the current condition, (or risk loss of confidence). To minimize future updates, careful consideration is needed about the sign content and information design.

When thinking about the features to include on the wayfinding signs, it’s important to consider the relative longevity of each. A historic monument that’s been around for centuries is likely to outlast the wayfinding signs, as will the location of a railway station. The same can’t be said for individual retailers within shopping centres or tenants in office buildings. But, even within these, there will be amenities such as toilets, exits and elevators that will remain fairly constant.

As part of the design process, key features within a destination need to be explored and decisions made about the:

  • What needs to be included to enable people to route plan and navigate.
  • Extent to which each is likely to need updating during the lifetime of the signs.


Differentiating between the permanent and semi-permanent information, will enable a modular approach to be taken. With information that’s likely to need regular updating grouped together, and the sign form designed to enable easy and cost-effective refresh for that particular component, rather than the sign as a whole.

Recouping Waste Material

Wayfinding designers also need to respond to the growing importance of circular economy principles. Factoring in ease of disassembly for the signs they design. This applies equally to end-of-life disposal or recouping materials from information updates, so that it can be reused or recycled.

For end-of-life disposal, this ultimately means making it easy for different materials to be separated and sorted. For information updates, there are already well-established practices for updating old content with new, on the original base substrate. From removing and replacing surface applied graphics or printed film to reskinning and covering up the old content with new.

A key sustainability challenge for anyone involved in commissioning, designing or manufacturing wayfinding signs, is to think well beyond day one. To future -proof and lengthen the operational life of the information, by really exploring what the likely requirements will be in 2, 5 or 10 years’ time and factoring these into the design. Recognising that at some point, the scheme will have outlived its useful life and designing sign forms so that component materials can be easily recovered to be recycled or repurposed.