Thursday, January 21, 2010

The problem with signs

I was giving a building tour to the new intern at work this week, and I pointed to a sign in the hall that reads, "Area of Rescue Assistance."
"Those are the stairs," I told her. "I worked here for about six months and wondered where the stairs are and what an 'area of rescue assistance' is."
I figured the "area of rescue assistance" was a response to 9-11 and was some sort of emergency telephone booth. The sign has no symbol that represents a staircase, and even though it does have an "Exit" sign, it wasn't obvious to me.
Call it a blond moment.
The problem with signs is that while we get caught up in the legality and officiality of the notice, we lose the message.
I noted a sign posted at my gym that reads "Cell phone usage permitted only in designated areas." Hmmm. I didn't see any designated areas. Does it mean where a sign is posted, you are not permitted to use a cell phone? And, if so, how far does the restricted area extend? As far as you can read it? If there is no sign, is that a designated area?
So many unanswered questions.
My favorite sign was posted in the restroom at the community newspaper I worked for in Michigan. It read: "Please utilize the courtesy flush and deodorizer spray."
I had no idea what a courtesy flush was, and it took me several weeks to muster the courage to ask. I wanted to make sure I was never busted for not using a courtesy flush because the company restroom is the last place I want to be caught being discourteous. What I learned is, the flush at the end of the bathroom visit is the obligatory flush. The courtesy flush happens immediately after you drop, thereby minimizing lingering odors.
I like to apply the 5-year-old test to signs: If a kindergartener were to read that sign - assuming, of course that he or she reads English - would he or she understand the instructions?

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