As part of San Francisco International Airport’s (SFO) mission to provide exceptional service to the community, the airport hired Gresham Smith to conduct a comprehensive study to review, analyze and recommend ways to enhance its existing signage and wayfinding program. SFO is a large airport with complex architectural spaces and numerous visual stimuli competing for customers’ attention. These attributes combined with the airport’s non-intuitive circulation pathways and counter-intuitive service locations could make navigation difficult for unfamiliar passengers.

Gresham Smith worked with the airport to identify and evaluate existing passenger signage programs and develop a holistic strategy for improvement throughout the airport terminals, ground transportation, curbs and center islands, and AirTrain system. Our team interviewed key stakeholders, observed customer activity during field surveys, reviewed customer comment logs, and conducted more than 1,700 passenger intercept surveys to identify and evaluate the unique passenger wayfinding challenges at SFO.

SFO’s art, advertising, concessions, marketing and wayfinding programs were all controlled by different departments and often competed for the same space with adverse results. Drawing on the three overarching wayfinding principles of continuity, connectivity and consistency, our team recommended the adoption of a wayfinding strategy that flows from the airport’s design into a natural hierarchy of visual elements that affect the passenger experience, including: verbal and written communication via static and digital signage and non-sign-related wayfinding tools such as landmarks, architecture, lighting, print/web and digital tools. Recommendations were reviewed from both a cost and passenger/airport benefit perspective to determine the appropriate allocation of resources.

The improvements SFO made following the conclusion of this study have helped to reduce anxiety and confusion by better orienting people within the airport complex and helping them move to and from their destinations with greater efficiency.


San Francisco Airport Commission


San Francisco, California

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Jim Harding, SEGD
Jim Harding, SEGD
Director of Experiential Design & Wayfinding