Improving graphic sign language using a word grammar

Application of the grammar for words, improves understanding of signs substantially. Evaluation and redesign of international standard traffic and safety signs. Conclusion: (traffic sign) exams and casualties (due to incomprehensible safety signs) can be reduced substantially.

What is the meaning of this traffic sign?

28% of the licensed car drivers knows. The experimental counterpart
is understood by 68% of all readers.

Graphic syntax is defined as spatial arrangement The human language machine is not restricted to one language. It can process English and Chinese. The machine is not restricted to the tongue and the ear but can deal with muscular and visual information as well (dance, language for the deaf). For word language and hand-signs language for the deaf, one grammar applies So, there are three questions:

•   Is a word grammar applicable for a visual sign language? When the answer is yes, the next question would be:
•   Does the application of word grammar rules, improve sign design? When the answer is yes, the next question would be:
•   What is wrong with today’s sign design?

1 Is a word grammar applicable for a visual sign language?

1.1 The grammar for denial

In a word grammar the form for denial is adding a denying element: not, no, none, nowhere, nobody n(o)either, dis-honest, inconvenient, non-infectious, unlikely. Visual forms for denial are similar: the colour red, strike through and double strike through (cross). These visual grammar rules are well understood and international. Cursor on the picture shows the meaning of the sign.
1.1.1 Position grammar for denial Position grammar for denial

The position of the denying element is relevant. Do not kill him. is not the same as Kill not him. In the ghost driving sign at the right the position of the driver is not clear. Is the driver seeing the red car (the ghost driving car) or is he in the red car? In this case misunderstanding is lethal.

Wrong way driving is the common wording in English. This might be interpreted as being lost. This wording does not express the lethal situation. The Dutch wording Ghost driving is used here. When the more correct wording Ghost driving is used, psychological design requirements are expressed more clearly. (See below).
The two general denials (red, strike through) in the signs at the right are not related to the denied element e.g. by position.Consequently, it is unclear what is not allowed. In addition, a general denial (red circle around all elements) is only applicable in a one element sentence. . .
Grammar for complex denials

So far simple denials were discussed: yes/ no. In real life, denial is more complex by adding conditions for denial.

1) The top green sign on a ferry door says: This is an emergency exit (only to be used in case of an emergency). At the bottom you can see that the captain added a second sign explaining the meaning of the exit only sign.
2) A similar yes/no confusion is present in the signs at the right.
3) According to denial word grammar rules in language, 2 x no=yes, not unattractive is attractive. This text graphic at the right has one denial in words (niet = not) and two graphical denial elements (red and a cross). It is impossible to understand the meaning of this message. .The Dutch text is saying: You are not what you eat.
The anti ghost driving traffic sign at the right has two denials (overall red triangle and red car).
At the entry of this motorway in Vienna shows a total of eight denials trying to stop the driver becoming a ghost drivers. According to word grammar denial rules, the meaning would be: Please continue ghost driving. Sign designers seem to be so anxious that their no is not understood, that their grammar is not (as in word grammar) 2xno=yes but the denials add up.
4) Confusing is the use of red to attract attention as well. This bridge sign does not mean: Do not open the bridge. as the colour red suggests. Confusing is, using red for no and to attract attention using red as well. An example of a graphic synonym is the red in the emergency exit sign. The red does not mean no (do not use this exit) but Look here. In the experimental signs on this page the meaning of red always is a denial. Attention is directed using the colour yellow. The licensed, very professional, very experienced Boeing 747 pilot used the OK, meaning OK for take-off, and the licensed, professional, experienced air traffic controller’s interpretation was OK for route clearance. Consequently the pilot did not stop running into another Boeing 747.
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1.2 The grammar for plurals In word grammar the form for plurals is adding letters to the singular form: one book, two books. Such a multiplier rule applies to signs as well.         
There are words for general plurals (books, men) and specific combinations of elements (dictionary, family, gallery). This also applies to signs.      
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1.3 The grammar for adjectives In a word grammar an element can be restricted by adding a restricting word: a long car, a tall car, a passing car. When the element or the restriction (the noun) is absent, misunderstandings can arise, especially when three dimensional space restrictions are communicated in a two dimensional sign. When the element (the noun) is omitted the reader has to learn the meaning of the sign.Size adjectives for cars are simple three dimensional: height, width and length. Adjectives for nautical signs are more complex because there are invisible dimensions like underwater, current, tide and wind.

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2 Does the application of word grammar rules, improve sign understanding?

The previous chapter showed that rules for word grammar can be applied to signs. Will signs having a correct word grammar lead to better understanding?

2.1. Grammar, denial, and human performance

Not understanding the round bed sign at the right is not lethal. Not smoking in bed goes without saying.

It might be lethal for 57% (n=21) of the in bed smoker who think the meaning of this sign is: no beds available, do not move the bed, do no sleep in the bed, take care of earth shakes, and bed with high hand rail.
The Austrian triangle shaped ghost driving sign at the right is a candidate for the European standard.In an experiment 69 readers needed 10 seconds to draw any conclusion about the meaning of this sign. That is a lot of distraction on a moment extra attention is needed (entering a motorway). 0% (n= 69) does refer to the ghost driving danger and might not be killed within a few minutes.
The Dutch anti ghost driving sign has a clear direction adjective (Go back).   The 40 readers needed 5 seconds to draw a conclusion. 8% explicitly refers to ghost driving.

For this experimental ghost driving sign 27 readers needed 7 seconds to draw a conclusion. 44% explicitly refers to ghost driving.

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2.3 Grammar, plurals, and human performance
We do not say a male and a girl when we mean people. According to word grammar this Austrian blue sign means: For adult males and little girls only. The girl on this sign is not a typical standard girl but there seems to be a graphical adjective, meaning I don't want to go with that man. However, probably, the general plural people (including males, females and children) is meant. Is the Pont d'Avignon for families only? Is the Laurette Theatre for adult males only? The arrow is pointing left, why is everybody walking to the right? 91% (n=34) of the readers have another interpreation of this elevator sign than the designer has: do not hang out 9x, max number of people here 4x, wait here 2x, do not enter 1x.
When in a language, irrelevant specifics indicate plural, relevant specifics might not be interpreted as relevant for the meaning. This is the case in the examples given above. This impairs communication of more complex messages as the one at the right.Parking for families with young childeren (more space, close to entrance). Source: Ikea.
Using a specific only (passenger car/lorrie/bus) when the whole group is meant makes the communication complex. In that case word language has to be used to correct the graphical grammatical error. Parking for female drivers only (safer (close to the entrance) or larger places (easier to park).
The German sign at the right shows an example of over-extension. The passenger car stands for the plural passenger cars, lorries and busses as well. Over-extensions are common in the language of two years old children. Dogs, cats, cows and horses, they all are dogs. German traffic law says for this sign at the top: No overtaking of all types of cars.

Below on the sign are a black bus and a black lorry. Black does not have a specific meaning and suggests there are no restrictions for busses and lorrie. However, the meaning is opposite to the graphics. Passenger cars can take over, busses and lorries not.

0% (n= 10) of the Dutch readers understands this sign.
This Dutch sign has the same meaning as the German one. Although black is used for no, the sign is easy to understand. No over-extension errors are made. In addition, position is clear by presenting the two nots on the lane where they apply. Experimental sign for no overtaking for lorries and busses. No over-extensions, no confusion.
61% (n= 12) of the Dutch readers understands this sign.
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3 What is wrong with today's sign design? A sign is first detected, then read followed by recognition (in case of a familiar sign). When the sign is selected as relevant follows decision and action     The focus of these kinds of models is visual: on readability and recognition.    A premise is that the reader knows the sign. Memory as a basis for communication has some risks.
1) A training and in some cases an exam is needed when the interpretation of a sign relies on memory. In practice the exam is passed, even when performance is not 100% and the meaning of some critical signs is not understood. 28% (n= 54) of the car drivers understands this Dutch maximum car length sign. 8% (n= 40) of the readers understand this Dutch anti ghost driving sign that is in use now for more than three decades.
2) After obtaining his driving license, a driver might forget the meaning of the signs learned and his memory will gradually change the interpretation of the sign to a more (psycho)logical one.
3) For public transport and safety signs, there is no training and passengers don’t need a license for a sea ferry trip. 79% (n= 63) of the readers does not understand this green ferry emergency sign.
4) The requirements for costs, efficiency, safety and comfort increase. Consequently, systems become more and more complex. More restrictions and exceptions have to be communicated. Technical options increase as well (dynamic, personalized information, more media become available). When memory is the basis for signs, a permanent sign education would be needed.
The risks of misinterpretation and the experimental results show that memory is a weak basis for a sign understanding. What to do? Biological evolution has chosen another way that enables humans to deal with a complex environments. When a few sophisticated facts and rules are available in human memory, then human thinking can create and interpret a large variety of messages constructing a few fundamental rules. Even unforeseen messages in an unfamiliar context can be understood. The memory based car length sign at the right is understood by 32% (n=37) of the licensed and experienced car drivers. The unfamiliar thinking based boat length sign is understood by 73% (n=33) of the unlicensed readers seeing the sign for the first time without having had any explanation. The other subjects might understand the sign when they would be familiar with the similar sign for car length.  The complicated shallow bank sign at the bottom is correctly reconstructed by the memory of 43% (n=46) of the subjects.

Signs obeying the laws of psychology are far better understood by unexperienced, unlicensed and unprepared readers than signs dictated by law are understood bij experienced and licensed readers.
For a plain sign language, user licenses and user memory are a dead end.
For a plain sign language, sign designers should be licensed and their memory should contain cognitive psychology, including psychology of language.

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