David Bernstein : Fighting the lost cause

As someone with a ‘pathetic sense of direction’, David Bernstein thinks designers need a few pointers when developing coherent signage systems

THE forecourt of Piccadilly Circus Underground. Many years ago. All the telephone boxes lining the curved wall were full. I joined the queue at right angles to the middle of the row. As he reached its head, the Indian gentleman in front of me refused to budge. I pointed to the empty box. He shook his head and pointed in turn to the green sign on the wall above the middle box: two arrows, left and right facing, marked ‘Ladies’ and ‘Gentlemen’. The empty box was clearly for the opposite sex.

In reassuring him, I hope I wasn’t patronising. As with almost all communication errors, the fault was that of the sender rather than the receiver. Communication scientists advise transmitters to put themselves in the receiver position before transmitting.

Do airport designers, I wonder, put themselves in the passenger’s position?

Finding my way to a departure gate is difficult for me at the best of times (I’ve a pathetic sense of direction). It is made worse by the pressure of catching a flight and is certainly not helped by the clutter of competing commercial messages. Will a similar confusion reign in hospitals where signage is, of necessity, clear and efficient, if and when the private sector complements NHS funding?

The arrow is arguably the most common directional sign. Hard to make ambiguous one would think. Yet how often have you emerged from a hotel lift to find your room and followed an arrow… in the wrong direction? Numbers adjacent to one arrow are often placed on top of another arrow adjacent to its set of numbers so that the eye has the choice of reading across or down.

Then there is the upward pointing arrow. On the highway this clearly means straight ahead. But in Whiteleys? In a store it also means up a floor. Presumably individual designers have managed to distinguish straight ahead from up. But I for one am not aware of a common icon, and, please, nothing fancy. When it comes to the basics of life I can forswear creativity, those clever silhouettes of ladies and gentlemen of another era on loo doors. Ambiguity is out. It’s bad enough remembering in France and Italy that C on a tap means hot.

Not that I expect to be pampered abroad with signs in my native language. The onus in this case is clearly on the receiver. Nevertheless, the pole position of English does make us lazy and expect translations wherever we are. We may smile at the infelicities (I was once invited to a ‘festival of amateurish films’ in Brittany), but the joke is on us for being bad linguists.

Mind you, lots of mistakes are made communicating within one’s own language. There’s the (apocryphal?) story of a sign in a Canadian national park, ‘Fine for parking’, which encouraged rather than deterred. Similarly, ‘Do not use this lift in case of fire’ suggests cause and effect – and an absolute prohibition on ever entering the elevator concerned.

Then there’s the sign next to the main door on London buses. ‘In the interest of passenger safety our drivers have been instructed only to open these doors at scheduled stops.’ The mistake here is not the message itself – that is clear enough – but the subject, what it tells you about the company. The drivers have to be ‘instructed’, ie, without instruction they would not consider customer safety. Note also that this item of face-to-face communication avoids using the second person. Why not ‘To ensure your safety the driver will open the door only at scheduled stops’? If the eyes are the mirrors of the soul, then language is the mirror of corporate thought.

Of course, the clearest of signs and signals cannot always communicate. According to the official report on the Paddington disaster, the red stop sign at Ladbroke Grove ‘was difficult to see’. On the day of its publication the BBC’s Radio Transport commentator said that its effect would be short-lived. ‘Once Ladbroke Grove has passed the drivers will drop their guard’. Poor bugger I thought.

Words too can send out mixed signals. Incongruous images are created when the speaker fails to empathise with the listener. What makes absolute sense to one can suggest something quite different to the other.

Metaphors are magic. But mix them and meaning is often mutilated. ‘The Syrians’, said a BBC Middle East reporter, ‘are leaning over backwards to build bridges’. Maybe that’s how you build bridges in Syria. Being neither Syrian nor a construction engineer I can’t rightly say.

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