Bad Signs

Your faithful correspondent has been a self-appointed arbiter of bad design ever since he read “The Design of Everyday Things” by Don Norman in the 1980s.  My chosen specialty  is poorly-composed signs.  The explicit purpose of signs is to direct, instruct and clarify; any sign that fails its basic mission should be put out of our misery.

I thought I’d share some examples from my Bad Sign Hall of Shame.  I normally don’t wish people ill, but the design-school dropouts who created these monstrosities should go visit a corn maze someday and never find their way out.

Yes, I am rather ruthless when it comes to bad signs.  Maybe I was born under one.

Which Way to the Ice Machine?

At left (click to enlarge) is a sign in the 5th-floor hallway — at least they got that right — of the Richmond Marriott in Innsbrook, Virginia.  Spare elegance was the byword in the design of their signage, floated behind glass and with generous margins.  Unfortunately, the sign gives no clue whether the ice machine is to the right or the left.

My solution to the problem is shown at right.  First, take note of Collins Design Principle #1 — directional arrows that point to the right should be in the right margin and those that point to the left should be in the left margin.  Arrows should never point back to their own labels.

Moving the ice label to the top and giving it an arrow of its own eliminates all ambiguity and increases readability.  I also added an ice-crystal symbol for non-English speakers.  Marriott Hotels, please contact me.  My rates are reasonable.

And by the way, your ice machine was broken.

Center-Up-Down, Left-Up-Down, Right-Up-Down

The title of this section refers to how the designer of this Ohio highway sign (left) expected drivers to parse it.  There is no earthly written language that calls for such a feat.  My inner voice says, as I read this sign, “West 90 East, Keep Left 2 Right Turn.”  Huh?  This was such a dog’s breakfast of numbers, words and symbols that I couldn’t help but snap a photo of it, so I could take a better look at the sign when I got home and figure out how to fix it.

The designer (if you can call him that) apparently decided that placing the elements in an unnatural order wasn’t enough to confuse drivers, so he threw out proximity rules as well. Those rules say, among other things, that elements associated with each other should be grouped together and unrelated elements should be set apart.  But here, the destination labels (WEST, EAST) are far removed from their respective turn instructions; and, based on its position, it appears that the right turn arrow refers to Route 2 alone.

That’s not all.  The designer indiscriminately mixed written instructions (KEEP LEFT) with symbolic ones (the right arrow).  People process text differently, and more slowly, than we do symbols.  Each type of element has a specific use and the two are not interchangeable. 

So here’s my solution (right).  I give the sign a header comprised of the two route shields, with a horizontal rule between the header and the instruction columns.  I use a wide gap to define the columns.  I provide both symbolic and written instructions for each direction.  The result is clean, balanced and easy to parse.

The average graphic designer salary in Columbus, Ohio, is only $47,500 a year.  You would think that the Ohio DOT could afford to find a better one at that price.

When is the Bridge Open?

Lastly, here is a sign that was posted near the north entrance of the Woods Memorial Bridge, a swing bridge connecting Beaufort and Lady’s Island, South Carolina.  Besides its obvious clutter and complexity, I had a number of issues with this sign.  Like, who is it for?  Though the sign was installed near the highway, it was really more relevant to boaters, as open means open to watercraft.

In any case, this sign is incapable of being read and comprehended by passing motorists, and it is hardly more intelligible when standing next to it.  For example, does the heading “MONDAY THROUGH FRIDAY EXCEPT HOLIDAYS” apply only to the top section, or to the top two sections, or to the entire sign?  And what do we do with that triple-negative in the upper section, where an except precedes a not which precedes another except?

After doing some research, I discovered that the bridge schedule has been changed multiple times in the past decade, in response to traffic backups in the Beaufort historic district.  So, the sign in the photo may have already been replaced.  In light of the fluid (haha) situation, I offer this: list the times when the bridge always opens on signal, otherwise tell boaters where to find the current schedule.

That’s it for the first and probably last edition of Bad Signs, a small bit of self-indulgence. Sometimes, when I see something I think a 7-year-old could do better, I can’t resist seeing whether a 67-year-old can do it better too.

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3 Responses to Bad Signs

  1. Eric says:

    Those are egregious examples, especially the second!

  2. Emily says:

    This is why I, like many women, don’t rely on signs, including street signs (they are hard for me to see, or covered in snow in the CLE), and rather, landmarks. Interesting that you attribute the sign design to men! Your post reminded me of something I just saw on a package of Belvita breakfast biscuits – “Natural flavor with other natural flavor”.

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