It is dangerous to stick your head out
Lars Stenberg, Sensory Trust
Signs can be funny. Do a search on Google for “funny signs” and you will unearth a cornucopia of the misspelled, the double-entendre and the unfortunate connotation. Since it’s nearly Christmas I was going to write a light-hearted yuletide article about signs that say “No dogs smoking ice-creams” and such like. Then I started thinking about the wording of some of the commoner signs that bedeck our parks and public spaces at that idea went out of the window.
Much of the work on accessible information at the Sensory Trust focuses on the medium: Braille, large print, audio, tactile maps and so on. We also look at the language: Plain English, Easy English, Widgit symbols and so on.
There is another issue involved with accessible information that bears some scrutiny. The subtle messaging that can come, intentionally or unintentionally, from the words and pictures we choose to use.
There used to be a sign above the windows of carriages on many European trains: those old rattlers with the six seat compartments and sepia photos of the Alps above each seat. The sign was in four languages. In German it ordered: “leaning out is forbidden”. In French and English it advised that we “do not lean out”. In Italian it informed us that “It is dangerous to stick your head out.” Three different ways to say the same thing. More or less. The differences are subtle but important.
The German sign is unequivocal. Leaning out simply will not happen, because you have read the sign and the sign says it is forbidden. You don’t need to know why it’s forbidden. It just is.
The French and English versions take a more advisory tone, but the order is still implicit. Don’t do it.
The Italian one is the interesting one. Nowhere does it tell you not to lean out. It tells you, in case you hadn’t realised, that it is perilous to stick your head out of a moving express train window, but you are free to have a go if want. Don’t say we didn’t warn you. In fact, if you’re male, fifteen, and there are girls watching, the sign almost demands that you to stick your head out of the window as a right of passage.
The same subtle messaging issue is present in the ubiquitous “unsuitable for wheelchairs” sign. If we took an imaginary German version it would say Wheelchairs Forbidden. The Italian version, however, would say something like “Steep, rocky path with crumbling edges (don’t say we didn’t warn you)”. This last one is the version of most use to people and unfortunately the least often seen. It allows the reader to make up their own mind whether to attempt the path or not. It also implies that whoever put the sign up respects the people using the site as independent, free-thinkers who can decide for themselves, based on their knowledge of their own abilities, whether the path is suitable or not. And let's face it, who has a better knowledge of our own abilities than each of us? Given the right information, of course. The Italian version might want to include gradient and path width information. The person making the decision on whether or not to use the path should also be armed with a good map.
While giving information to allow independent decisions treats people as adults, and fosters a kind of mutual respect, there is a dark side. I’m back on the train again, and this time I’m getting a cup of tea, and of course the message on the paper cup warns me that I should exercise caution as the contents is hot. Well, it is tea, after all, and anyone who has ever spilt a hot cup of tea on their lap will go out of their way to never do it again, but most of us must feel that the message is not so much for our comfort and safety as it is to minimise the chances of legal action. We might also be forgiven for feeling we are being treated like idiots.
And that’s the climate which provides the backdrop to much of this, certainly in the UK. Someone wearing inappropriate - but appropriately named - court shoes sues a park after slipping down a grassy bank in the rain. Why? Because there were no signs to tell her that wet grass is (surprise!) slippery. Can those responsible for putting up signs risk treating people with respect? Will that lead to more court cases or less? Would a sign lessen the suing potential? “Slippery when wet”? “Keep off the grass”? Or do you simply fence off the area? Many of these signs appear to be written by, or at least approved by, lawyers. The legal profession has never been a leader in the use of plain English and many of these verbose, litigation-reducing signs may leave us scratching our heads wondering exactly what they want us to do.
Another example of the subtle messaging in the way we use words and images is the myriad versions of the simple message “clean up after your dog”. “Penalty if you allow your dog to foul the area” is a popular one and a personal favourite example of a simple sign made nonsense. Possibly originally written by an ex-football referee, does this sign ask you to clean up after your dog, implying that you are being treated as a responsible citizen, or does it mean that your dog should stick a cork in it until it’s somewhere there are no signs… like the pavement outside the park? “Clean up after your dog” is far better. It puts the onus for park cleanliness firmly on you, the owner and it uses words in a way that has only one interpretation. “Penalty if you allow your dog to foul the area” doesn’t imply you should clean it up if the worst happens. It suggests, subtly, that if the worst does happen, you better scarper as there will only be a penalty if anyone catches you.
Images too can imply different things, strengthening or undermining a sign’s message. The red circle sign with a diagonal red bar across a silhouette of a dog means “no dogs” but it is often used to communicate “no dog fouling” which it patently doesn’t. The correct image for that would be the cheery and graphic squatting dog with steaming poo pile crossed out in red. Of course, going back to our Italian rail window sign, probably the most effective sign would be the one with a graphic of an owner with a spade or bag picking up the fouling. A wrong or badly considered image can be as confusing as poorly written text and at worst can make the sign ineffectual.
Choice of photographs in brochures and leaflets also has the potential to imply certain subtle messages. There was a time, and there are still some about, when any park leaflet advertising the health benefits of a walk/jog/cycle in the park would show a glowing Anglo-Saxon nuclear family, with matching tracksuits and teeth, beaming at the camera. Then political correctness swept through and suddenly we were confronted with even less likely groupings of people which we struggled to make any sense of. Why are all these disparate social stereotypes standing in the park together smiling at the camera? What on earth can they be doing? Although these pictures seemed to be even more of a contrivance than the nuclear family at least they began to tackle the diversity issues that are raised whenever we choose a single picture to illustrate a park or public space.
Of course, it’s impossible to convey, in one picture, the reality of a place that may be a picnic place by day and concert venue by night, but it is worth considering the breadth of the potential audience for the publicity, what they are likely to do, and how they will see the photographs that are used. If there are facilities like easy access trails, then including images of elderly people or wheelchair users in mainstream publicity will demonstrate that they are welcome. Working with a diverse range of people when you develop your information will go a long way to helping choose the right images.
Now, all this might sound a little pedantic. Do we really need to take that much time and effort over our language and our images? Consider for a moment (a moment is probably all they deserve) the multi-million pound advertising industry. The images and slogans that penetrate our consciousness, even when we don't want them to, are the product of days and weeks of discussion and testing. Details right down to the colour of an actor's socks are debated as crucial to the marketing message: careers are built on less. Regardless of how ridiculous the process, the successful commercials and advertisements make us want to buy stuff. They work.
So we should spare a few minutes to look at the next piece of information we create and ask ourselves “what am I actually saying and am I saying it clearly?”