Design Lessons Businesses Can Learn from Hospital Signage in the Pandemic

Architecture and design firm NBBJ shares its wayfinding secrets

Hospital signage should be “authoritative” and straightforward, but vivid colors can help people find their way with minimal effort.
Headshot of Jess Zafarris

Key Insights:

Every business and organization that has remained open or reopened during the pandemic faces the challenge of creating a safe, comfortable and welcoming experience for the public. Adweek explored strategies for crafting the right tone and experience through wayfinding elements in depth, but one agency’s work demonstrates why this process is especially vital right now.

Few agencies are better equipped to take on this challenge than NBBJ, a global architecture, planning and design firm that works with hospitals, sports facilities, big tech companies and other businesses to create experiences, branded spaces and wayfinding elements. 

Perhaps the most robust requirements for wayfinding and signage appear in NBBJ’s work with hospitals. Hospitals don’t have the best track record of effective wayfinding. Eric Levine, principal, experience design and environmental graphics at NBBJ, wrote in a blog post that 30% of patients report feeling lost or confused by hospital signage.

Easing customer anxiety is vital in any environment, but for hospitals, the stakes are much higher, with signage needed to mitigate the very real possibility of infection. At a time when being in the wrong place at the wrong time can mean exposure to the virus, clear wayfinding is literally a matter of life and death.

If someone is in the hospital with a broken arm, they don’t want to be sitting in a waiting room filled with people who might be there with Covid-19 symptoms.

“You want to make sure there’s a segregation ability, and using signage and graphics to do that so patients feel comfortable in themselves,” Levine said. “It’s about reducing the intermingling of Covid patients with non-Covid.”

That means not only interior signage pointing people where they need to go, but also notices for Covid patients starting along highways near hospitals, signs in outdoor spaces on the hospital campus and at entrances.



The tone of hospital signage should be “authoritative” and straightforward, Levine said, but vivid colors like pink and green can ensure that people are able to find their way with minimal effort.

The crisis has waned since its initial stages when hospitals were overcrowded and short on beds, but the graphics NBBJ created continue to assist patients as cases persist across the U.S. “The intentionality of the signage is about increasing clarity to the customer about where to go, what to do and making the patient feel comfortable with where they are,” Levine said.

Applying the principles in other organizations

Businesses outside of the health care sector may not need to develop signage systems as robust as those needed in hospitals, but they can leverage some of the same key principles.

Levine said businesses have a responsibility to provide health-focused messaging and wayfinding, but customers are more likely to feel an affinity with an organization if they demonstrate that they care about the safety of their customers. “If you’re not doing that, then it will almost appear as neglectful to your customers or to your clients,” Levine said.

Keeping text focused prevents people from glossing over key information, for instance. Creating signage that’s bright and eye-catching in noticeable shapes like circles and squares can guide customers on a clear path through a store, and ensuring that these signs are placed along all points in the journey ensures more consistent behaviors.

@JessZafarris Jess Zafarris (née Jessica Farris) is an audience engagement editor at Adweek.