Do not enter, exit only

Signs of Bad Design

I saw this sign at an airport and it gave me pause. By which I mean it literally stopped me in my tracks. This sign conveys two pieces of information:

Do not enter (indicated by a red circle with a white horizontal line)
Exit only

(We’ll get to that additional message, written in pink crayon on masking tape, in a moment.)

The chain of events in my mind

So let me relay the chain of events in my mind when I first encountered this sign:

  1. [Reading] Do not enter
  2. [Surprise] Oh, I can’t go this way?”
  3. [Reaction] If I can’t go this way I need to go another way”
  4. [Confusion] Which way should I go?”

And then immediately below that symbol:

  1. [My eyes move further down] Exit only
  2. [More surprise] No, wait, this is the exit”
  3. [Slowly unfurling the logic] Oh, so I can go this way, but I can’t return”
  4. [Moment of understanding] OK, this is door is only an exit”
  5. [Pang of content design rage] I’m taking a picture of this disaster”

Diagnosis

The messages Do not enter” and Exit only” are contradictory. And they are using the do not enter” symbol as warning triangle. That’s bad content design.

But! But!

Someone realized that there is a problem with the sign. Their fix was to reorder the content, by adding a hand-written Exit only” above the Do Not Enter” symbol. The working assumption seems to be, if you see Exit only” first, you might ignore the contradictory message below.

But that’s not how humans work. Symbols (especially one as universally known as Do not enter”) are generally more powerful that words. Humans who know how to drive have been trained to regard the Do not enter” symbol as indicative of a potentially dangerous situation. Which is why I stopped in my tracks.

This sign is at an airport. Try to imagine how many people it has befuddled.


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