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?

Let’s get started…

So here we are at the first post. As I said in the introduction, learning about design involves thinking, observing and just having a play around with ideas.

The first idea to ponder is what is ‘good’ design and why is it important? I strongly believe that everyone has a little bit of a design mind and that’s why we like gardening, cooking, art and maybe even having a tidy desk. In my book, good design is a combination of functionality and beauty. In other words, well designed things are both useful and attractive. I’ll have a lot more to say later about why it matters that things are attractive and why it doesn’t have much to do with decoration, but that’s a conversation for another session. If you are interested in the connection between functionality and beauty you should read Donald Norman’s book on why we like things to look nice.

What do you need to do?

Start by carefully observing the world around you. Do you have favourite objects, tools or websites? What makes them useful? Name three things that are well designed and say what’s good about them. You can post examples here if you would like to.

Then find three things that are badly designed – post some examples as well. Alternatively, get yourself a work book and write down your thoughts, ideas and examples.

Is this an example of good design?