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Using signs to help patients navigate hospitals

A project called Signs that Work has developed and tested symbols to replace text-based hospital signs. The new symbols could significantly improve the hospital experiences of patients and visitors who don't read well enough to navigate with text signs.



Hospitals in the United States are providing care for an increasingly diverse range of patients, many of whom may be unable to read English signage. So the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded a project called Signs that Work to develop and test symbols to replace text-based hospital signs.

Professional designers developed and tested a system of 28 signs in 2006, and last year students at four U.S. design schools created another set of 22 signs that tested well among English and non-English speaking subjects. The second set of signs will be integrated with the first 28, which are already in use at four hospital testing sites across the country.

In a University of Cincinnati news release about the project, George Smith, a project manager at one of the test hospitals, commented on the practical and psychological value of the new signs:

Overall, he said, signage symbols are the way of the future as part of a larger wayfinding approach that allows visitors and patients to have a sense of autonomy and control upon entering a health center.

Smith added, “We’ve identified 26 language groups that use our facility, which spans 22 stories and 12 wings. If we had to use text to communicate on our signs, we’d have run out of wall space long ago. In the long run, the use of signage symbols will save us money in terms of implementation and updates.

The University of Cincinnati has a slideshow of some of the 15 signs contributed by its design students.

Images (mental health, anesthesiology, and dermatology signs) from University of Cincinnati School of Design students Paige Farwick, Kim Louis, and Emily Boland

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