Whether for the purpose of instruction, direction or warning, we see and follow signs on a daily basis. But is signage really effective in communicating the meaning and expectations contained in their words?
Robby Slaughter, a principal at AccelaWork and co-author of the article Signage and Psychology in the Industrial Workplace, discusses this topic in detail. In it, he and Jack Rubinger ask readers whether signs actually impact the way in which we think and behave. It’s an important question and one that isn’t cut-and-dry, but, it’s certainly something worth taking a step back to look at so improvements can be made where necessary.
Slaughter and Rubinger cite a case study from the UK where a restroom was continually covered in graffiti despite daily cleanings. Each day, Professor T. Steuart Watson and his graduate students conducting the study carefully recorded the number of marks on each wall of the restroom. Despite signs forbidding the defacing of the public space, the graffiti kept popping up day after day, even increasing in number. The professor tried an unconventional, but simple tactic: He simply taped a sign on the wall that read, “A local licensed doctor has agreed to donate a set amount of money to the local chapter of the United Way for each day this wall remains free of any writing, drawing or other markings.”
Within three months, the restroom walls were free of graffiti.
Watson believes the emphasis on a positive outcome was the difference maker. Rather than using the common language of prohibition, this sign offered a reward for refraining from marking up the bathrooms. Can this work in an industrial setting?
Slaughter and Rubinger think so. In the article, they point out, “if employees get too used to seeing the same poster in the same location, it becomes part of the background, and they no longer ‘see’ the sign.” In this case, it’s clear that if a sign becomes a blended fixture on the wall, it’s more or less worthless in its impact on behavior. In the case of the UK bathroom, the negative, prohibiting language was not only common in location, but in tone. When the professor shifted the type of sign and the language from negative to positive, behavior changed.
So how can we ensure that signs have the proper effect? Slaughter and Rubinger point out:
. . . concrete, simple graphics—such as a hand with a blade cutting it—are more effective than abstract images whose meaning must be learned. These variables enhance recognition and retention.
Finally, safety culture and climate are strong determinants of safety behavior. So is leadership. If leadership incentivizes safe behavior while punishing unsafe behavior, and trains and mandates safety, employees will more likely attend to the sign and remember and internalize its message.
When it comes to creating signage in the industrial workplace, the co-authors make the following suggestions on some options:
- Durable metal signs that will last for decades.
- Signage from a catalog, perfect for generic signs.
- Paint and stencils.
- Customizable labeling systems that include labeling software and access to thousands of OSHA, National Fire Protection Association and other important symbols and graphics.
Psychology and signage is a continuous conversation that will be analyzed and studied for an indefinite amount time. No doubt there will be more studies conducted and more opinions to be had. But for now, consider the overall message of the article: “think very long and hard about each situation you may face and talk to others who’ve been in similar situations. See what has worked and what hasn’t. Then, use your experience to craft the most potent message for your workplace.”