Communicating with the Functionally Illiterate in Public Spaces

According to a recent report published by the National Institute for Literacy and reported in a new study by the Detroit Regional Workforce Fund, nearly half – specifically speaking 47% — of Detroit area citizens are functionally illiterate. The suburbs do not escape the shadow of functional illiteracy. According to the report, 34% in Pontiac and 24% in Southfield are also functionally illiterate.

Think about that for a moment. Imagine that half the people you pass by each day during the work week cannot read. How do they get by?

In the world of architectural signage and wayfinding plans for interior and exterior spaces, the professionals that provide signage and communication solutions are being challenged more than ever before to communicate the right information to the right audience at the right point in time. If you add in functional illiteracy to that mix, and you toss in non-English speaking visitors or residents, well, the challenge just got more complex.

There is not perfect solution for this complex problem, but we do have some recommendations about how to break through the communication barrier.


When words fail us, we can always rely on images. More specifically, common pictograms or symbols of stairs, restrooms, and arrows are well known and well used examples, but it not too difficult to create simple (and that is the key) single-color symbols or graphics to help guide people to where they want to be. Check out this example of a design school directory and an exterior directional post sign. It brings color and symbols into the wayfinding mix.

Read another post about Pictograms.

Color Schemes

From colored accents to colored header bars and even LED lighting, a consistently applied bold color is a great way to keep people moving along a path. Check out these examples of a colored accent bar and how the point or arrow shape of the accent and the colors point people in different directions.

Consistent Design Patterns and Shapes

One of the most commonly understood sign shapes is the octagon. Color it red and put white text on it, and most people will get the message – stop. For critical signage, such as regulatory and restriction signage, consider bringing these commonly understood shapes into the architectural signage design. In addition, decorative features such as printed background patterns can be applied to a sign panel or into the surrounding environmental graphics to indicate a department or section of a facility.

See related post: wayfinding solutions for illiterate and low-literate

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