Posted by: communicationcloud | September 1, 2009

Give me a sign!

This week I have been mostly thinking about signs and warnings. Not so much about how you communicate via a sign; more about the set of conditions that make a sign or warning necessary and appropriate, and how that relates to the culture or context the sign appears in.

Nothing to see here: carry on as you were…

Generally, we don’t cover our world with signs that give instructions for absolutely everything, or with warnings about all possibilities… For example, on a winding road, you might see a sign warning that you’re coming up to a sharp bend or some roadworks; you don’t get a sign saying that the road is continuing straight on without obstructions … because you don’t need to signpost normality.

What are the chances of…

But there also has to be a reasonable expectation of the event or situation a sign is about actually happening. For example, there are places in the UK where there’s a likelihood of deer wandering onto the motorway, so we have this sign:


There’s no likelihood of an elephant on the road, so you won’t see this sign:


However, in Cambodia – where I went on my holidays last year – the chance of this happening is higher, so the sign is necessary.

An elephant on the road would be just as dangerous in the UK as in Cambodia, but the likelihood of it happening in the UK is so low that you won’t see a sign warning against it.

On a side note here, one sign I’ve passed frequently has baffled me for a long time. It looks a bit like this:


How did they get to that number of miles? At two and a half miles, is the chance of deer so significantly lower that a sign isn’t needed, or does it enter a zone where deer would be more expected, so no warning is needed?

Cutting out the noise

But high frequency isn’t the whole picture – if something is so likely to happen that we take it for granted, then there won’t be a sign about it. For example, we get lots of foxes and badgers on our roads, and we don’t see warning signs about this – perhaps because the level of danger is lower, but probably also because foxes and badgers are likely to be on all roads in the UK, so it’s not an unusual enough circumstance to warrant a warning sign. We also get lots of other cars on the roads, but we wouldn’t expect to see signs about them!

So, you get signage when a situation or event fits in a narrow space where it’s far enough outside normality to be notable (or need instructions), but the right level of likelihood for a sign to not just be noise. A simple illustration of this narrow space is where you put a warning about pedestrians… and where you don’t. Sometimes the expectation of pedestrians crossing a road is the norm (in a city centre, for example); sometimes it’s an unusual occurrence, but likely (on a busy road that connects a school and a housing estate, for example); sometimes it’s so unlikely that it doesn’t warrant a sign (on a motorway, for example).

Why is this the case? The full range possible events or situations is so broad that if we were going to warn or inform about it, it would be counterproductive – people wouldn’t be able to filter all the “noise” effectively enough to get to the real message about a danger or direction to take.

Imagine if this road was part of your journey…


(Don’t worry, by the way, this isn’t a real road: it’s a driving test centre in Greece).

Signs and warnings tell us more than they intend to

This delicate balance of expectation and frequency means that signs and warnings tell us something about the culture or context – tell people how to get to the supermarket, and we can assume that there might be people in the area who wouldn’t know the way; warn people not to swim in a lake, and we can assume that there are people who might consider swimming in the lake. Which is why this sign made me smile when I saw it in a public toilet in Cambodia:


And this one hurts my head just thinking about how it came to exist (I’m sort of hoping there was a whole committee involved in the decision):


An element of risk

There’s a another factor at work in signage and warnings, which is also influential: the element of risk. It’s probably the case that there’s an interaction between the level of risk and the likelihood of the event or situation a sign or warning is about. In a built-up area you might not normally put a warning sign about pedestrians … except when there is an entrance to a school nearby: the unpredictable nature of children, and their lack of experience with traffic, increase the risk level enough to make a warning sign for motorists a sensible idea.

Back in the day job…

Similar principles apply to “signposting”, warnings, and instructions for software or websites: tell people about all possibilities, and there’ll just be too much noise for people to pick out what they really need to know; don’t tell people enough, and they might get lost or fall down a (metaphorical) hole. Which is why really understanding users is so important: just as signage can tell you a lot about culture or context, you need solid knowledge of culture and context before you can get the signage right.



  1. Great post.

    There are a couple of exceptions to the “no need to signpost normality” rule that can add significant value. Sometimes normality can create unintended confusion because “normal” is subjective. A hypothetical signpost on the M1 saying “This is not the exit for London” might be irrelevant for most but can be terribly valuable for the first-time driver (or foreigner).

    (Unfortunately, I can’t think of any real examples right now … so perhaps not that valuable hehe.)

    PS: The Greek instructional signage might account for the celebrated Athenian driving skills 😉

  2. lol @ the ephelant

    Seriously, it’s road signs like that that may as well read “You are abroad” Love it.

  3. This sign amuses me:

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