Houston, TX
2.4 million ft² existing construction


Conduct a research assessment of the Houston Zoo’s current wayfinding and strategic recommendations for an updated orientation system, taking into account phased plans for renovation.


Ethnographic research, wayfinding system recommendations, nomenclature recommendations, sign system design, sign location plan


Site Analysis

  • The Zoo was illegible to first-time visitors
  • Multiple generations of wayfinding signage resulted in visitor confusion and mistrust
  • There was no central thoroughfare, making it difficult to give concise verbal directions and return-navigate to exits
  • Repeat guests reported having visited multiple times without realizing they had missed entire exhibits
  • The Zoo lacked a consistent aesthetic and strategic tone between exhibits

Case Study


Situated in the middle of Hermann Park, the Houston Zoo is the city’s most popular tourist destination, attracting over 2.5 million visitors annually. fig. a Like many other large campuses, the Zoo has grown up in phases over its nearly 100-year history, with multiple generations of signage creating a challenging wayfinding environment for visitors.

HZO context
fig. a The campus is characterized by winding paths and lush foliage.
Houston Zoo Centennial Campaign Website

"In 2022, we will celebrate the Houston Zoo's 100th anniversary by completing the most dramatic transformation in our history…"

Guest Archetypes + Behavior

During our on-site research, we shadowed multiple groups of guests as they navigated the Zoo. Through this research, we identified visitor archetypes with differing priorities who experience the space in distinct ways. It was vital for our wayfinding recommendations to respond to the needs and perspectives of each of these groups.

HZO freqflier 1 HZO freqflier 4 HZO freqflier 2
fig. b
Frequent fliers make regular, non-cumulative trips to the Zoo.


These guests are Zoo members who know the campus and are comfortable self-navigating, though they can feel thrown off by closures of familiar paths due to construction. fig. b They come prepared with any equipment they may need (strollers, hats, snacks, etc.), and navigate the Admissions area efficiently. They will often “bee-line” for the particular animals their kids want to see.

HZO wanderers 1 HZO wanderers 2 HZO wanderers 3
fig. c
Wanderers are prepared to spend a long period of time at the Zoo and will move at a slower, more cumulative pace.


The majority of the guests we shadowed are, at least to some extent, wanderers. fig. c These guests may have animals they would like to see during their visit, but they are in no hurry to get there and are happy to be surprised by other things they might encounter along the way.

Wanderers are happy to have their kids lead the way or take charge of the map. Like Frequent Fliers, Wanderers often come with their own snacks/wagons/strollers.

Wanderers can get confused or lost in absence of a clear wayfinding hierarchy, since they are likely paying more attention to the animals than to navigating—this can make reverse navigating and finding exits more difficult.

HZO planners 2 HZO planners 1 HZO planners 3
fig. d
Planners have a clear idea of which animals they would like to see, in what order.


These guests may or may not be repeat Zoo visitors, but regardless of whether they’ve come to the Houston Zoo before, they come with a plan. fig. d They look closely at the layout of the Zoo to think about adjacencies and convenient paths when choosing a route for their day.

Planners may come to the Zoo in the same group as Wanderers and have a difficult time sticking to their plan as the day goes on. If there is a divergence from the original plan, these guests often utilize re-orientation points such as major intersections, paths, and kiosks to assess where they are and get their visit back on track.

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fig. e
Multilingual guests often rely on visual systems like maps and pictograms to orient themselves within the Zoo.


Many guests of the Houston Zoo are either bilingual or non-English-speaking. fig. e While a large portion of these guests do speak Spanish, as one bilingual guest we shadowed pointed out, “Wayfinding should serve more than just English and Spanish—it should be international.” -VIS.05


People learn how to navigate complex campuses like the Houston Zoo in the same way they learn how to navigate a new city. As Kevin Lynch outlines in his seminal 1960 book The Image of the City, we can understand complex environments like cities as an overlapping and interacting series of paths, districts, edges, nodes, and landmarks. An effective orientation system leverages these existing conditions to eliminate extraneous signage and provide information at junctures where people naturally seek it.

We studied how these five elements function currently on the Houston Zoo campus, as well as how they will change once the first phase of the Zoo’s new master plan comes to fruition.

The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch, 1960
3.1mb 1960_the_image_of_the_city_lynch.pdf
MIT Press — "The Image of the City"

Further information, links to purchase


fig. f Non-orthogonal paths give guests a sense of meandering discovery.

Paths are the predominant element in guests’ wayfinding experience at the Houston Zoo. fig. f We found that the Zoo’s paths lacked any sense of hierarchy. There existed little differentiation in width or finish between “major” and “minor” paths.

This lack of hierarchy—further complicated by ongoing construction and the non-orthogonal shapes of the paths themselves—contributed to guests feeling turned around, especially as they reached the center of the Zoo. fig. g

Our research supported the Zoo’s plan to construct a central path through the campus. Establishing this thoroughfare would give the Zoo’s secondary and tertiary paths a center of gravity and would eventually provide a “straight shot” through the campus from the main entrance to the West Gate, improving verbal direction-giving and alleviating guest confusion about return-navigating to the exit. A defined central path would also allow for a more minimal signage system that integrates itself into the Zoo's lush organic surroundings.

In order for the central path to be successful, we recommended that it should differentiate itself by offering a predictable series of amenities, such as shaded benches, and imageable features, such as distinct paving.

HZO confusion anim
fig. g We observed that guests tended to become most confused as they arrived at the dense network of paths in the center of the Zoo, or when they reached the far end and had to begin return-navigating to find an exit.


HZO zones 2022 HZO zones 2020
fig. h

While phased renovations taking place between 2019-2022 will begin to institute a system of biogeographic zones, much of the Zoo will remain unchanged for the foreseeable future.

Along with paths, districts will become increasingly important and distinct as the Zoo moves away from individual exhibits to a system of biogeographic zones with animals grouped by their native habitats. fig. h

In conjunction with the central path, subdividing the Zoo into districts or zones will enable progressive disclosure—the idea that wayfinding information can be given out in phases or steps, with an increase in detail as the recipient gets closer to his/her destination—and will help Zoo staff with concise verbal direction-giving.


HZO edges 1 HZO edges 2
fig. i
Edge conditions.

In the context of the Zoo, edges can be considered as physical barriers, as persistent conditions that guests can follow along, or as metaphorical boundaries between zones. fig. i

While edges themselves are not paths, they can run adjacent to paths and aid in reinforcing a particular sense of place (e.g. “follow the edge of the construction fence until you hit the Big Bugs exhibit,” or “pass by the hoofed animals until you reach the entrance to African Forest”).

Edges were particularly important in developing our wayfinding recommendations for the Zoo because edge conditions posed by construction fences will be an ever-shifting constraint for at least the next decade as phased renovations progress. A successful orientation system, in our view, would leverage these construction fences as canvases for information rather than inscrutable barriers.


HZO nodes confusion anim
fig. j In our study of the Zoo’s current condition, we found significant overlap between nodes and areas of confusion. This makes sense, as intersections are more likely to get guests thinking about where they’re going next.

Nodes are naturally-occurring decision points or intersections where guests are likely to seek out re-orienting information. The non-orthogonal layout of the Zoo’s paths can increase stress and confusion at nodes if wayfinding information and signage are not deployed thoughtfully. fig. j

Nodes offer a natural opportunity to inform an efficient orientation system that provides guests with the information they need, when they need it, without over-signing.

Nodes should inform guests of key information while also encouraging them to keep moving—they should not be treated as a resting place. We recommended that each of the Zoo's major nodes should have:

  • A large-scale “You Are Here” map of either the entire campus or a localized ‘neighborhood,’ mounted at a height that children can easily approach fig. k
  • Directional signage that accurately indicates the angle of each path shooting off of a node. Messaging on this signage should follow principles of progressive disclosure, calling out high-level information such as zones, landmarks, and exits
HZO nodes 1
fig. k Large-scale maps printed on construction fences were popular with guests of all ages.


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fig. l
Visitors and staff cited the archway by the lions and tigers, the giraffe barn, and the elephants as imageable landmarks.

Landmarks often arise organically—physical features that can be easily pointed out because they happen to be tall or colorful, for example—or they can be purposefully added or punched up to become more imageable.

While we did not feel landmarks alone were strong enough to lead the Zoo’s wayfinding system, we recommended that a series of landmark icons be developed for use in directional signage, based on imageable elements guests and staff already identify as landmarks. fig. l


Based upon our field work and subsequent close reading of the Houston Zoo campus, we proposed a wayfinding system based upon the following principles:


Paths should have a clear hierarchy, defined by the predictable placement of signage, amenities, and other identifying environmental graphics features.

A system of color-coded districts anticipates the campus' eventual reorganization into biogeographic zones. These zones will serve to split the Zoo campus into manageable “chunks” and will aid in self-navigation and map-reading while also allowing staff to use progressive disclosure to give concise verbal directions.


Thresholds should have a consistent visual language to create familiarity around what it feels like to enter or leave a district or zone within the Zoo. (This is in contrast to the Zoo’s current handling of thresholds, in which there is no consistent style and some thresholds are defined more explicitly than others.)


The Zoo’s non-orthogonal paths limit guests’ sight-lines. Guests are often geographically close to the destination they seek, but wouldn’t know it because they can’t see it. This makes placement and messaging of directional signage particularly important.

We developed a sign location plan based on thoroughly walking the Zoo campus and assessing sight lines at each intersection in order to place directionals where they have the most impact. Our proposed signage system prioritizes directionals that can be custom-configured to meet the precise angles required by complex intersections.