Environmental graphics that support neurodiversity

Jun 26, 2024


by Dan Neifert

Supporting Neurodiversity: The Importance of Accessible Signage Design

In today’s world, where inclusivity and accessibility are increasingly prioritized in architecture, understanding neurodiversity and the needs of neurodiverse individuals is crucial. For designers in the built environment, both signage and environmental graphics present critical opportunities to support these needs. Signs are everywhere—on roads, streets, businesses, parks, restaurants, and apartments—all serving to inform people about their current location and where they are going. By focusing on fundamental design principles, environmental graphics and signage can significantly enhance accessible design and improve the overall experience for neurodiverse individuals.


According to the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion, around 15-20% of people in the U.S. are neurodivergent. This means you probably have neurodivergent family members, coworkers, colleagues, and friends. It’s crucial to understand that every neurodivergent person is different.

Neurodiversity encompasses a range of conditions, such as autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, dyslexia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety, and Tourette syndrome. Neurodivergent individuals often face challenges when overwhelmed by stimuli, especially in unfamiliar environments.

The hectic nature of urban streets can greatly magnify these stimuli. As Make A Difference Media highlights, “Bright lights, crowded, or noisy spaces can sometimes present challenges for neurodivergent individuals with sensory sensitivities, which can lead to heightened stress and anxiety.” This underscores the importance of creating inclusive and accessible environments that consider the needs of neurodiverse populations. Well-designed environmental graphics can help mitigate these challenges by providing clear wayfinding, reducing anxiety, and enhancing the overall sensory experience.


So, how can signage and environmental graphics better support the needs of neurodiverse people?

As a starting point, be sure to design signage in accordance with ADA guidelines, which provide rules for letter height, raised characters, braille, and more. The Society for Experiential Graphic Design (SEGD) has put together this helpful PDF (Signage Requirements in the 2010 Standards for Accessible Design) that can be used to reference ADA guidelines for signage.

However, ADA signage requirements primarily address physical impairments like blindness and don’t offer guidance for conditions like ADHD or dyslexia. Additionally, ADA signage laws only provide baseline requirements for certain sign types and messaging, such as restrooms or fire evacuation routes. Furthermore, even with ADA requirements in place, signage is often hidden, has poor visual contrast, or unclear messaging. This only makes things more stressful for neurodiverse people. Just last week, a colleague was asked by their client if they could make their own room signage because they were worried about the cost associated with raised braille characters. We must stress to our clients the importance and impact that inclusive signage has on the experiences, especially of those who may need extra support finding their destination.

When I think about accessible design, I often think of my mother—an occupational therapist with almost 20 years of experience. She says, “Including all people means going beyond ADA requirements. In my opinion, the ADA should be the minimum consideration. Please consider all human aspects of participation and access, not just ADA recommendations.”


Let’s look at a few fundamental design principles to keep in mind when designing inclusive signage and environmental graphics for your project.

Progressive Disclosure: Only include essential information to avoid overwhelming the reader. Focus solely on the next step, not multiple steps ahead.

Messaging: Use clear and direct language. Avoid complex sentences and jargon. Use straightforward language that conveys the message without ambiguity. Avoid a sarcastic tone of voice.

Example: In an emergency, stay calm and use the nearest exit. Instead of: Please vacate the premises in a calm and orderly manner via the nearest exit in case of an emergency.

Layout & Hierarchy: Use a consistent layout for similar types of signs and graphics. This predictability helps users know where to look for specific information. Provide the reader with a clear hierarchy of information, allowing them to easily identify key takeaways. Achieve hierarchy with scale, layout, change of font, or use of bold/italics.

Typography & Fonts: Research shows that neurodiverse people tend to prefer sans-serif fonts for readability. Ensure text is large enough to be read at a distance but not so large that it takes up too much space. Use bold, italics, or different colors to emphasize important words or phrases.

Color Contrast & Negative Space: Provide ample white space to reduce visual clutter and help the important information stand out.

As designers, we often hear: “Can we make this bigger?” While legibility from a distance is important, at a certain point the lack of negative space creates clutter and makes everything hard to read. Ensuring that signs and graphics have a high contrast between text and background improves visibility and readability. Additionally, color should not be the only differentiating factor between options; instead, use multiple differentiators like iconography, letter codes, etc.

Iconography: Incorporate universally recognized icons to support text. Simple, clear icons can convey information at a glance, reducing the need for processing complex text.

Example: A person running towards an open door for an exit sign.


Compelling environmental graphics play a vital role in creating branded experiences that are not only visually appealing but also inclusive and supportive of neurodiverse individuals. These graphics, which include everything from wall murals to informational displays, contribute significantly to the atmosphere and functionality of a space.

For neurodiverse individuals, well-designed environmental graphics can provide clear wayfinding, reduce anxiety, and enhance the overall sensory experience. Moreover, interactive elements, such as touch-sensitive maps or calming visual patterns, can engage and soothe those with sensory processing differences. By considering the unique needs of neurodiverse individuals, designers can create branded environments that are aesthetically pleasing and foster a sense of belonging and ease for all visitors.


For more examples and visual guides on design principles for neurodiverse people, I encourage you to check out Neurodiversity Design.

By incorporating these principles, designers can create signage and environmental graphics that are not only more accessible for neurodiverse people but also improve the overall usability and inclusivity of urban environments for everyone. Finally, we must acknowledge that the study of neurodiversity is an emerging field, and no two brains are exactly alike. As designers, we must advocate for more inclusive spaces for those who may feel neglected, and we should not be afraid to adapt our design processes in this pursuit.


Dan Neifert

As an Experiential Graphic Designer at Little, Dan Neifert specializes in creating human-centered branded environments and environmental graphics. With a keen eye for detail and a passion for innovative design, Dan helps transform spaces into immersive experiences that resonate with audiences. Outside of work, Dan enjoys all things music, crafting unique jewelry pieces, and exploring the outdoors.

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