Reading the Room

Using Signage to Create Healthy and Vibrant ADA-Compliant Spaces
Sponsored by Inpro
By Erika Fredrickson
1 AIA LU/HSW; *1 ADA State Accessibility/Barrier-Free; 0.1 ICC CEU; 0.1 IACET CEU*; 1 AIBD P-CE; AAA 1 Structured Learning Hour; This course can be self-reported to the AANB, as per their CE Guidelines; AAPEI 1 Structured Learning Hour; This course can be self-reported to the AIBC, as per their CE Guidelines.; MAA 1 Structured Learning Hour; This course can be self-reported to the NLAA.; This course can be self-reported to the NSAA; NWTAA 1 Structured Learning Hour; OAA 1 Learning Hour; SAA 1 Hour of Core Learning

Learning Objectives:

  1. Discuss how signage has evolved to create more welcoming spaces in support of occupant well-being.
  2. Identify the latest signage material and manufacturing processes and their impact on occupant safety.
  3. Describe the liability exposure building owners face for non-compliance with ADA.
  4. Explain how ADA compliance leads to healthier, safer, and more welcoming environments.

This course is part of the ADA Academy

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Proper signage in commercial and public spaces is key to how people safely navigate the built environment. And now, as more architects turn to human-centered design focused on healthy buildings, signs are playing a more important role than ever before. New signage products can be selected for durability, sustainable design, and allow for a range of digital art options, which designers can specify to meet their architectural vision. Far from being an afterthought, signs for health care and learning environments—as well as for hospitality and multifamily construction—must be seen as an asset for architects and as a transformative tool for renovation. This article discusses the latest in cutting-edge signage design and ADA compliance, and it offers a way for architects to stay on top of—and ahead of—the curve when it comes to keeping occupants safe, healthy, and comfortable.

Photo courtesy of Inpro

A school in North Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin, uses ADA-compliant signage that incorporates aesthetic design.


Human-centered design considers the variety of ways occupants of a building interact—and react—to spaces. It accounts for the diverse abilities, backgrounds, and contexts of users and aims to create solutions that support a positive experience across those spectrums. While the concept of human-centered design has been discussed throughout architectural history, it has gained increased attention and significance in recent decades. Architects continue to explore and refine approaches to create designs that prioritize the well-being of occupants, reflecting an ongoing commitment to human-centered design principles.

Signage is one important way building designers can shape the experience of occupants in positive ways. Through language, symbols, color, and texture—among other things—signs can offer wayfinding and information, as well as provide emotional and physical comfort. In particular, signage in public spaces such as schools, hospitals, museums, and hotels plays a crucial role in occupant experience. When signs are effective, they can enhance learning and healing environments, and communicate clear messages that keep people safe, happy, and healthy.

The built environment is always changing. And signage, along with it, is ever-evolving. When architects consider signage in their designs, they must understand the ways in which signs function to support safety, health, and comfort within a space. They must understand accessibility laws, codes, and best practices. Just as important, designers can look to signage as an asset, rather than an afterthought or hindrance—an innovative solution to their architectural vision.

Types of Signage

Signs provide information. Some signs serve to provide basic information about a space, including health and safety guidelines, regulations, and best practices. For instance, the pandemic has necessitated signs displaying messages about wearing face masks, maintaining physical distancing, washing hands, and following other specific safety protocols. This kind of information helps raise awareness and reminds individuals to follow recommended health and safety practices. Information signage also provides basic information such as the location of restrooms, emergency exits, parking areas, and other facilities. Detailed and well-placed informational signage helps people feel more welcome and empowered in their surroundings. Informational signage can be creative, and employ additional value by offering intriguing information that sparks interest. Signs might offer historical information or details about the activities that happen within the building, and in doing so, give occupants a unique experience within the space.

Signs provide navigation. These types of signs are meant to guide people safely and accurately through spaces. That includes signage indicating a one-way flow of foot traffic, signage that identifies designated entrances and exits, or signage that directs individuals to specific areas such as first aid stations. When signs provide clear directions and helpful instructions, they help prevent confusion and ensure people follow protocols and get where they need to go. Wayfinding signage has evolved to provide clear directions and visual cues that help visitors navigate easily and feel more comfortable in unfamiliar surroundings. This includes the use of maps, directional arrows, and landmarks to enhance orientation.

Signs provide hazard warnings. Signs can warn individuals about potential hazards in public spaces. For example, signs can indicate wet floors, low ceilings, or areas under construction. These warnings can help people avoid accidents and injuries by alerting them to potential dangers and risks.

Signs provide emergency information. Emergency procedures and protocols should not be guesswork. These signs offer clear direction to people during intense and stressful situations with information on evacuation routes, emergency exits, the location of fire extinguishers, and emergency contact numbers.

Photo courtesy of Inpro

Emergency evacuation plans provide detailed information in well-placed areas that supports the safety of occupants.

Signs reinforce compliance. When there are rules people must follow in a space, signs can serve as reminders to comply. They might indicate consequences for non-compliance, such as fines, and they generally act as a deterrent to rule-breaking to keep everyone in the space safe.

Signs aim to ensure accessibility. Signage should comply with accessibility standards, such as using braille, high-contrast colors, and large fonts, so that everyone can understand and follow health and safety messages.

Additional Qualities of Signage

Over the years, signage has become more intuitive and user-friendly, employing clear and concise language, simple graphics, and universally recognized symbols. This design approach ensures that signage is accessible to people with different cultural backgrounds, ages, and literacy levels.

Universal Accessibility: Architectural signage now focuses on meeting the needs of individuals with disabilities. Signage incorporates features like Braille, tactile elements, and high-contrast colors to enable visually impaired individuals to navigate and interact with the environment effectively. Additionally, signage may include audio or visual components to assist individuals with hearing impairments.

Multilingual Communication: In diverse environments, architectural signage increasingly employs multilingual communication to cater to different language speakers. Signage may incorporate multiple languages or use pictograms and symbols that can be easily understood regardless of language barriers.

Aesthetics and Integration: Signage has become more aesthetically pleasing and integrated into the overall design of the space. Instead of being seen as obtrusive or utilitarian, architectural signage is now considered an integral part of the environment, blending seamlessly with the surrounding architecture and enhancing the overall visual appeal of the space.

Emotional and Cultural Considerations: Modern architectural signage takes into account the emotional and cultural aspects of space. Signage may incorporate artwork, cultural references, or local elements that resonate with the community, creating a sense of belonging and familiarity. By reflecting the cultural identity of the space, signage contributes to a more welcoming environment.

Photo courtesy of Inpro

Emergency evacuation plans provide detailed information in well-placed areas that supports the safety of occupants.


The evolution of human-centered design and signage is inextricably linked to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA is a landmark civil rights law in the United States that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Its origins spring from several laws and movements, one of which was in 1968, when the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) was passed, requiring that federal buildings be accessible to individuals with disabilities. This was followed by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability in programs receiving federal funding.

The ADA was signed into law on July 26, 1990. It prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities and requires reasonable accommodations to be made in employment, public services, and public accommodations. The ADA defines “disability” broadly, covering physical, sensory, mental, and cognitive impairments that substantially limit major life activities. It also mandates accessible design and construction of new public facilities and modifications to existing structures to ensure accessibility. The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 further clarified and broadened the definition of disability, providing additional protections.

Interior building signs, which help communicate information about the interior space, are geared toward people with vision. ADA requirements make spaces navigable and knowable to people without vision and offer them the ability to navigate a building with greater independence.

There are now many qualities that make signs ADA-compliant, but one of the more obvious ones is Braille. Strict guidelines and requirements for Braille have been established and even revised over time to meet accessibility goals. The tactile writing system of raised dots is now a common feature of public signage, but its origins go further back than the ADA.

The first recorded use of Braille, which was created by Louis Braille (a Frenchman who lost his sight after a childhood accident), can be traced back to the late 19th century. In 1891, the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) in the United Kingdom began using Braille on street signs in London. These early Braille signs were made of metal and featured raised letters and numbers in addition to Braille dots, providing information such as street names and building numbers for the visually impaired. But it took time for Braille to come into mainstream use. Braille was deemed a hazard because it supported the independence of those with low or no sight–but as public opinion changed, so did views on accessibility. The use of Braille on signage in the United States began to gain traction in the mid-20th century as awareness and advocacy for accessibility increased. Still, it wasn’t until the passage of the ADA that the use of Braille on signage in the U.S. became more widespread.

For an architectural sign to be ADA compliant, several aspects need to be considered.

ADA-compliant signs should be of appropriate size and positioned at a height that allows easy visibility and readability for all individuals, including those with mobility or visual impairments. The guidelines specify mounting heights and reach ranges to accommodate wheelchair users and individuals of various heights.

Signage should have sufficient contrast between the background and the text/pictograms to enhance readability for people with visual impairments or color blindness. ADA guidelines provide specific requirements for the minimum contrast ratios between background and text/pictograms based on the sign’s purpose. Fonts should be sans-serif and easy to read. ADA guidelines recommend using fonts like Helvetica, Arial, or similar typefaces that are legible, clear, and easily distinguishable. It is essential to avoid decorative or stylized fonts that may be difficult to read, especially for individuals with visual impairments.

ADA-compliant signs intended for permanent rooms or spaces need to include Grade 2 Braille, a tactile writing system used by individuals who are blind or visually impaired. Braille text should be placed below the corresponding visual text and meet specific height and spacing requirements.

International Symbol of Accessibility (ISA) pictograms are commonly used to identify accessible elements or spaces. ADA guidelines outline specific dimensions and design requirements for pictograms to ensure visibility and recognition.

In addition to Braille, tactile raised characters are required on ADA-compliant signage. Characters should be raised a minimum of 1/32 inch (0.8 mm) from the background surface and have specific height and spacing requirements. Raised characters are essential for individuals with visual impairments to read signage through touch.

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Originally published in Architectural Record
Originally published in July 2023