Discords in signposting

Causes of restlessness in signposting: technology, marketing, inconsistency, colour, double function and realism.


Signposts must have a smoothing effect. What makes navigation restless?

1. Technology

Taking into account the requirements of the user more in architectural planning, reduces restlessness of navigation and the need for signposting proportional. Some ergonomics engineers have the opinion that signposting represents a failure of architecture (Canter, 1984).It is quite obvious, that architecture may well have either a positive or a negative effect on way-finding. Important architectural requirements for way-finding are visibility of the structure and the availability of orientation points.

1.1 Presentation of technical structures

A discrepancy between the structure of the physical architecture and what the user sees can cause restlessness.

  • Mirror walls are, in effect, the ultimate in restlessness, showing what really is not there at all. See the Figures at the right.
  • architecture mirror new york
    Figure 1. The effect of a mirror

    The mirror has no effect yet.

    Source: New York, approx. 1995.
    architecture mirror new york
    Figure 2. The effect of mirror

    The mirror has a dramatic effect.
    The mirror shows at the left of the pedestrian an empty street. Pedestrians might conclude that they can cross safely. However, they are looking at a mirror showing the street at the right.
    Behind the mirror there might be traffic on the street he is going to cross.

    Source: New York, approx. 1995.
  • Restlessness can be caused by having all parts of a building look identical. The user no longer is able to notice differences and he can not tell whether he has been at a point before. See the figure at the right.
  • architecture of underground stationsFigure 3. The artistic design of this underground station

    The distinct design reduces the number of passengers confusing similar designed underground stations.

    Source: Underground station Stockholm 1985.
  • Failing to show what the purpose of a given architectural feature is another option. See the figure at the right.
  • utrecht central station hall Figure 4. Architecture does not show function

    This looks like a shopping mall. It is a station. To increase awareness of entering a station the tiles on the floor form patterns of rails and sleepers.

    Source: Utrecht Central station, approx. 1995.
  • One can emphasize in the signposting features that are relevant for technicians only. See, for example the three signs below.

  • Nevertheless, not only technicians involved in buildings who force their mental model onto the users.
      icons pictograms public transport Figure 5. Technology versus user’s target for signposting

    The pictograms show transport technologies (bus, rail, underground, water).
    The pictograms do not show targets (e.g. city center, suburbs, international, intercontinental). It is not clear whether the boat sign refers to the boats heading for America or for the other side of the lake at that side of the station. In that station there are passengers for both targets.

    Source: Amsterdam central station 2008.
    architecture signposting naming targets Figure 6. Architects’s vision is central in signposting

    For architects expressions such as
    exitand sideare very important e.g. This sign should be mounted in the hall at the exit city center side (Dutch: Uitgang Centrumzijde). For the user only the objective is of importance: center. That is 66% less text.
    architecture signposting naming targets station cologneFigure 7. User’s vision is central in signposting

    City centeris all the user need.
    All users expect that there is a side
    and an exit at the direction indicated.

    Source: Cologne Central Station, approx. 1985.

    1.2 Providing points of orientation

    Orientation points should be visible from as many positions within the system as possible. Mentally good orientation points are those that obviously are quite different from others and eye catching as well.For example, a square and a hall are very different from a street and a passage. Works of art also can be eye-catching, recognizable and memorable orientation points. See the figure 3 above.horse shoe plan shopping centreHorseshoe shaped plan, e.g. for a shopping mall. A distinct piece of art in the heel of the shoe can be seen from every corner.
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    2. Marketing

    The influence of advertising on the effectiveness of signposting information was studied by Boersema and Zwaga (1985). From this survey it appeared that the conspicuousness of signposting can be reduced by advertising by a large amount. In the old days and even more today, presenting the marketing name of the travel product is more importantthan presenting relevant travel information such as: delays, other destinations and differences between destinations of front and rear of the train. sign post brussels central station Straight on or to the right for the train to Paris/Amsterdam, Paris/Amsterdam Germany, London? Marketers and sign posters, both try to attract the visual attention of the user. Generally speaking the marketer has the advantage, as he has more budget available for this purpose. Figures 7 above and 8 at the right show examples of conflicting marketing and passenger interests.

    3 Inconsistency

    The signposting trade is a difficult one. Particularly in the case of large and complex buildings such as shopping centers and hospitals. In the foregoing some examples of good signposting were given. However, there are some mistakes as well. Inconsistency is one of them. Repetition is more restful than change; less has to be recalled. When the user knows that the signposting is blue, he can find signposts easier than when he does not know what colour to look for. Inconsistency can occur when several systems are integrated. Bus, underground, train stations, airport terminals and shopping centers are integrated more and more. In the Netherlands public transport was well on the way in consistency. All road information for motorists and travel information for train travelers was presented in white characters on a dark blue background. Almost all buses were painted in public transport yellow. Unfortunately, after privatization public transport colours depend on the house style of that moment of that commercial company that is running the service. The way public transport information is presented depends on commercial aims more than on passenger efficiency aims.
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    4 Use of colour

    Design errors can be made in selecting colours.
    It does happen that a designer selects a colour scheme in such a way, that light symbols appear on a light background. This proved insufficient contrast, making the text illegible. Of course, when red and green are used they should not have the same luminance. In that case red-green colour blinds can see the difference.
    In addition to physiological requirements there are psychological requirements. Colours do not have an ordinal structure. Seeing a blue room gives no indication of where the green room is. Knowing one is in the north wing of a building many users know where to find the south wing. When you know you are on floor five, you are also aware of the position of floor 6. It is common practice of designers to allocate specific meanings to colours. Users might not be aware of the specific interpretation. Unless we are prepared to personally tell each passenger at the entrance to the building that colour is being used and what the meaning of the colours is. For example, Wright (1988) has studied what the effect is of the difference between the background colour on a board which gives information per floor. The floor at which the users happened to be at the time, had a different colour. After having used the boards several times, when asked, the subjects did not notice the use of colour nor were they able to explain the meaning of the colour.
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    5 Double functions

    Creativity and artistic considerations might suggest form for signs having more functions. Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias that limits the user to interpret a sign only one way. In most cases that is the is traditional meaning. The figures below show such riddles.

      Figure 8. Arrows having two functions,

    Having two functions one function might be missed.
    In this Pinokio amusement park Pinokio’s nose is used as arrow.
    The pointing function of the nose might be missed because of the aesthetic function it has as well.

    leisure park sign post functional fixedness
      Figure 9. Characters having two functions, one function might be missed
    The name of the restaurant is
    tijd(Dutch for time). The characters iand jform the hands of a clock. A creative design. Users might not notice the clock, nor the name of the restaurant.
    naming restaurant using a clock
      Figure 10. What is this?

    This is art. Under the umbrellas and on the chair bus passengers
    can wait for their bus. The bus stop sign is at the left.

    Source: Den Bosch, the Netherlands, approx. 1985

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    6 Realism

    Realists are information designers who picture a given situation as it is. Examples are:
    - floor plans
    - arranging products sold per floor
    - arranging targets per direction.
    A realistic presentation of information is an odd way to present information as one helps the user who cannot find his way in the real situation. Arranging products per floor he has no option but to start at the top of the directory, hoping that the product is sold in the attic and not in the basement.Hence, Wright (1988) claims, correctly, that signposting at elevators must not be graded by floor, but by the target of the user. This can be an alphabetic arrangement, by type of facility (shops, offices, clothing, retailers, groceries), enables the user to skip many targets. Realism not only can lead to longer search time but also to more serious problems (See the figure at the right).
    arrows pictogram elevator design signpostingFigure 11. Realism in icons causing serious problems

    Elevator entrance at the top floor.
    The elevator only goes down, so only the down arrow is shown. This might cause serious problems for passengers urgently searching a toilet
    but finding themselves in an elevator.
    These problems can be prevented by adding an up arrow.

    7 Discords in design

    This psychological evaluation of common design practice might confuse designers.If so, that is their problem. There is no need at all for users getting lost in complex systems.
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