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


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.
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.
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.
HZO multilingual 2 HZO multilingual 1 HZO multilingual 3
fig. e
Multilingual guests often rely on visual systems like maps and pictograms to orient themselves within the Zoo.


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

Paths are the predominant element in guests’ wayfinding experience at the Houston Zoo.

HZO confusion anim
fig. g


HZO zones 2022 HZO zones 2020
fig. h


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

Edges can be considered as physical barriers, as persistent conditions that guests can follow along, or as metaphorical boundaries between zones.

While edges themselves are not paths, they can run adjacent to paths and aid in reinforcing a particular sense of place.


HZO nodes confusion anim
fig. j

Nodes are naturally-occurring decision points or intersections where guests are likely to seek out re-orienting information.

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.

HZO nodes 1
fig. k Large-scale maps printed on construction fences were popular with guests of all ages.


HZO landmarks 1 HZO landmarks 2 HZO landmarks 3
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.


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.