Signage that makes sense

Communication and Health Literacy

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Making signage in healthcare facilities easy to understand is a simple way to improve the healthcare experience for consumers with limited literacy, health literacy or English language skills.1

  • Use simple, everyday words. For example use 'Walk-In' rather than medical words like 'Ambulatory Care' or 'Outpatient Services'.
  • Make signs easy to read, clearly visible and use a consistent style.
  • Consider providing additional languages on signs, in line with the main languages spoken by your consumer population. Where there are multiple languages it might be more effective to use graphic symbols – there are limits to how many languages can be presented effectively on a sign.
  • If you use symbols on your signs, use those symbols consistently in your written information – including printed handouts, service directories and your website. This will help your consumers become familiar with the symbols.
  • Ensure staff know the meaning of the various symbols used in your signage so they can help consumers.
  • Limit the number and range of instructional signs, which communicate processes or procedures ­– what a person needs to do. Examples include:
  • If you have been waiting over 20 minutes, please tell the staff at the front desk.
  • Please wash your hands before going past this sign.
  • Please turn your mobile phone off for your appointment.

Directional signs

In healthcare facilities, consumers often face multiple floors, corridors that look the same, complex routes and many signs with jargon. For a person new to the environment some words or acronyms won’t be familiar, the terms ‘ambulatory care’, ‘outpatients’, ‘ENT’ and ‘paediatrics’ may be meaningless.

Directional signs help people find your service and their way around your service. Making this easy can help them feel comfortable.  It also consumers arrive on time and reduce the time staff spend giving directions.

Think about how a person finds their way to and around your service. Ask consumers for their input and feedback.  Consider doing a signage workplace assessment

  • If possible, display a sign in the nearby carpark to show the way to your service, and make sure the name of the service is clearly displayed on the outside of the building so people know when they have arrived.
  • If your service is located within a multi-purpose complex, clearly display the name of the service and floor it is on in the foyer, lifts and stairwells.
  • If the building or service is large, provide a map in the lobby or foyer, and include a 'You Are Here' symbol. Consider having printed copies available for people at reception.
  • Be consistent with the name of your service and the names of places within your service. For example, choose either to have a 'Reception', 'Front Desk' or 'Welcome Desk', and ensure all signs and other written material use the same term.
  • Don't use abbreviations or acronyms.
  • Consider colour coding or coloured lines as alternatives to words to guide people through the facility.
  • Display signs to direct consumers to commonly-needed areas like reception/front desk, waiting rooms and toilets.
  • Incorporate graphic symbols and images into your signs as much as possible. Signs incorporating symbols are easier to understand than purely text-based signage.

1. R Rudd & J Anderson,The Health Literacy Environment of Hospitals and Health Centers,National Centre for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy & Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, 2006, viewed 23 July 2014, http://www.ncsall.net/index.html@id=1167.html

January 2019