The ambiguity of signs

Quick, where is the loo?

Last week I had dinner at the RSL club with my 90 year old father-in-law and during the meal he asked what the green ‘running man’ sign meant. I said it was an exit sign and asked him what he thought it meant. He replied that he thought it might be a sign indicating that there was a toilet nearby. When I asked why the man was running, he said “he might be in a hurry to get to the toilet”. This exchange was followed by a lively discussion on whether signs are actually as clear as we assume them to be. Does the green running man really indicate that there’s an exit, or is he just a man in a hurry?

 I noticed that the word EXIT was on another sign, some distance away from the running man, however there was nothing to indicate that there was any relationship between them. In other words, proximity really does matter. If words and pictures are a long way apart we assume that they are not related concepts. Of course, the addition of the word EXIT on or near the sign doesn’t help people who can’t read very well or don’t speak English.

 According to Wikipedia (always a reliable source!), the ‘running man’ pictogram was designed by Yukio Ota in 1982 and is used in Japan, South Korea, China, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Norway. So the green running man is very widely used across a range of cultures, but is it clear?

 Can you think of a better way to indicate an exit using only visuals?

2 thoughts on “The ambiguity of signs

  1. In central and Eastern Europe the exit is often signified with a upwards vertical arrow leaving a square. This might be too abstract for some cultures, of course. Apple does something similar with a curved arrow leaving a square to signify copying a file out of the current application’s sandbox to share it with an external app.

    1. Hi Francis and thanks for your comment. I think the curved arrow leaving the square does indicate movement of some kind, but it’s hard to know whether I have been well trained by software developers or whether the icon is really giving me a clear signal. It would be interesting to ask very young children what they think various signs mean, but I guess you would have to get them before they were familiar with using an iPad so that you could be sure that they had not already been influenced. I was talking about this to a friend recently and he said that his (non verbal) 18 month old was quite adept at using his iPad, so you would need to get them very young. Cultural influences are really important as well (as you have indicated). What we ‘read’ in a sign is of course a result of our cultural background and experience.

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