Dementia Centred

Martin Quirke's picture

By Martin Quirke

February 1st, 2017

Signs can save lives

Most of us give little thought to how much signage supports us in our daily lives but, particularly for people with dementia, well designed and well placed signage can play a fundamental role in reducing distress, maintaining  independence, and improving overall wellbeing. 

Whether we realise it or not, most of us rely on signs to get us through the day. We rely on signposts by the roadside to guide the way whilst we are driving (even with satnavs in the car), and we really depend on signs directing us towards the toilet when we need to go.  In fact we really only tend to notice our reliance on the information we get from signs when they are absent or fail to be helpful. When we do realise the extent of our reliance, it’s probably true to say that we don't tend to consider ‘ordinary’ signage to be a matter so serious that it might affect our health – yet, for people living with dementia, the impact of signage can be precisely this serious.

From a cognitive perspective, we only tend to need signage where there are gaps in our knowledge about our environment. We each hold in our memory a ‘cognitive map’ of the network of places which are familiar to us – this could be described as a mental picture. It reassures us of where to find destinations and, to varying extents, the routes between them. Accordingly, we rarely need signs to help us find places we know well, whilst we become gradually more reliant on them as our surroundings become less familiar.

If, whilst reading this, you are sitting in a familiar environment, maybe your workplace or home, then it is likely that you can instantly visualise precisely where you might need to go should you decide to make a nice cup of tea. You already know where to go, and how to get there, because you hold a sufficiently detailed ‘cognitive map’. In fact you can probably recall so much detail that you can even visualise which cupboard door the cups are hidden behind. 

Now imagine deciding to make that cup of tea but being unable to recall that mental picture.  Working out where the kitchen is and, when getting there, having to hunt in cupboards to find a cup requires greater mental effort. If you add to this challenge significantly reduced problem solving ability, as is typical with dementia, then such an ordinary activity of daily living can become a more demanding, frustrating, and even distressing process. Good signage can help to prevent these problems, especially in well-designed spaces that maximise the visibility of the things you want to find (e.g. labelled and / or glass fronted storage cupboards - ideal for a kitchen wall unit). 

It is not uncommon for someone with dementia to set out for a destination and be unable to find their way. At few other times is this as distressing as when trying to find a toilet. Not only is there a great sense of urgency, but the consequences of wayfinding failure may not only lead to immediate embarrassment but longer term effects such as reduced self-esteem and misdiagnosed incontinence. By providing appropriate signage, we can permit autonomous wayfinding (and make it easier to make tea!). We can help people living with dementia to help themselves. 

The human drive for self-determination, dignity and living independently doesn't cease upon the diagnosis of dementia – if anything, that desire increases. Good design and good signage combined can go a long way towards improving  quality of life for us all, whether we drink tea or not.

10 tips on signage for dementia

DSDC’s Intersection of Dementia and Design course includes information on how to wayfind, good signage design and tips for reducing visual clutter. 



DSDC’s Introduction to Dementia Design provides an introduction to design of continued care and hospital environments for people with dementia. Learn how simple, low cost changes to the environment can make a real difference in reducing agitation and distress.


DSDC’s 10 Tips on signage for dementia ebook outlines ten important aspects to consider when designing and locating signage for the benefit of older people; especially those with dementia.