Effective Airport Signage & Wayfinding – Design, Standards & Installation

12 Jun 2014


When someone turns up at the airport, it’s taken for granted that it’ll be obvious what to do and where to go so that they catch the right plane on time. Airports are huge public spaces which need to run efficiently, allowing for the throughput of thousands of travellers every day. The way to run an airport efficiently is through effective signage. Without it, the airport can’t function.

Imagine turning up at Gatwick or Heathrow without clear airport signs from the motorway into the car park. Imagine trying to work out where the check-in desk or boarding gate is. The chances are that the flight would be missed. Planning the right signage is a highly skilled and complicated exercise. It needs to show passengers appropriate routes and it also needs to be clear and easy to understand.

Keeping the Airport Moving

Wayfinding around an airport needs a system. Signs need to be consistent — if the route requires a passenger to turn a corner, then another sign is needed. One-way systems need to be very clear to prevent large numbers of people in a rush trying to jostle past each, which potentially could lead to a very dangerous situation. As some of the distances covered can be quite large, signs need to state how far passengers may have to walk. This is especially important for disabled travellers. The government operates a Code of Practice regarding disabled people travellers, so strict airport signage standards must be met. Signs must work not just for those who have mobility problems, but also for those with sight and hearing issues.

Before designing a signage system, a full survey of the airport’s visual environment needs to be undertaken. Ideally, the airport signage and markings should be planned at the building stage rather than tacked on as an afterthought. Signage needs to take into account the colour of walls and windows and the amount of daylight and artificial light. In a crowded environment, signage needs to stand out against its background. Therefore a simple but bold colour scheme is required without too many variations. Black on yellow works well and is used in many airports. Some signs may need lighting up or to be illuminated internally. They need to be easy to read and understand.


Every airport will have its own corporate brand and that may be reflected in the signage, but it still needs to be user-friendly. UK car number plates use a standard font that’s instantly recognisable as alternative fonts can take the eye a moment or two to adjust, and it’s the same for airport signage. Tall fonts work better than wider ones. Several thousand passengers getting confused on the way to Gate 4 because they can’t interpret the signs quickly enough is a recipe for disaster.

Signs will also need to be large enough to accommodate more than one language. Pictograms and arrows are also very important at international airports to make it obvious to passengers who don’t speak the language. Overhanging signs are appropriate in some locations, but for someone in a wheelchair such a sign would be easy to miss.

Signage is not just there for a passenger is trying to find the toilets, the check-in desk or baggage reclaim. It’s vital for the safe and efficient running of an airport. Any system needs to be simple enough for a wide range of people to understand, but complex enough to ensure the airport keeps moving.