So do signs work?

Do signs work?

So do signs work? Well yes they do, but often they don’t.

A simple question, what signs work and what ones don’t? On my way to work I often encounter advertising billboards extolling the benefits of cars, soft drinks and others that to be honest I don’t recall. Can you remember all the billboards you saw this morning? Are you the type of person who buys everything you see advertised? No, of course not, advertising is about influence and persuasion, but not enforcement.

Enforcement is different, if you look at speeding enforcement and how speed limits are done, the red circle indicates that the sign needs to be “obeyed”. Ask yourself have you ever exceeded the speed limit, either through a lapse of concentration or because you were in a “hurry”? Or have you ever seen others exceeding the speed limit ignoring the signs.

As a bit of a generalisation, people who read signs prohibiting a kind of behaviour are generally those people who don’t need to read them…

This sign is from a shelter on the promenade in Weston-super-Mare, not sure of the age, but if I was to guess I would say from the 1950s.

This sign is from a shelter on the promenade in Weston-super-Mare, not sure of the age, but if I was to guess I would say from the 1950s.

I would ask the question, did this sign stop people spitting? It’s not just the assumption that the sign would stop people spitting, but there’s the language and what you can’t see from the photograph is that it was ten feet up, as a result not at eye level. If you think logically about it, if you want to stop people spitting to the ground, why not put the sign on the ground, though I doubt that would work either.

One of the problems with signs that prohibit behaviour is that where do you stop and when do you stop putting up signs. I recall when I asked a learner to stop eating in the library, he asked where was the sign prohibiting food and drink in the library? Now you may think he had a fair point, how would he know what the rules are if they are not displayed?

There are two key issues here, there wasn’t a sign saying “No Cycling” however I think most people that having learners cycling around the library isn’t conducive to others studying in the library. Yes that is a bit of a silly example, no one would cycle in the library, but the key question when you prohibit behaviours where do you draw the line. No drawing or highlighting in the books please. Please do not put chewing gum on the underside of the tables and desks. Should there be a sign saying “No Fighting” as you don’t want learners fighting in the library. Well would such a sign work anyhow?

The issue with having prohibition signs, is where do you draw the line, and where do you stop. You start to have a large number of signs, with an end result of lots of visual clutter and little impact on the behaviour, which you were trying to change in the first place. The problem is exacerbated when you allow different kinds of behaviour in different areas of the library and the only thing demarcating those areas are signs. Suddenly the library becomes a plethora of signage, which has little impact on behaviour, but can have an impact on learning. Visual clutter has a very negative impact on learning, it creates distraction and has a compounded impact on those with visual disorders.

The second key issue was that the learner who was complaining about the sign, had in fact signed a student code of conduct in which it was quite clear that eating or drinking in classrooms and libraries was not allowed. The learner probably either had forgotten, or not taken notice of what they were signing. Ask yourself how many times have you read an EULA for a web service or a piece of software. Even if you do, how much do you remember?

Relying on signage to change behaviour, is a flawed premise. So the important question is how do you change behaviours if you don’t use signs? Well that’s going to be another blog post.

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