You’d think that communication does not get much simpler than a sign. But many signs fail to communicate clearly.
This was dramatically illustrated at the recent Oscars ceremony, where the wrong card was read out for Best Film, but the design and typography of the card may well have contributed to the error, as pointed out by Benjamin Bannister.
Through extensive observational research, we have identified four kinds of communication failure. These same mistakes can affect any piece of communication, but show up most clearly in signs.
This warning is surely intended as a reference to specific dogs. But it could be taken as general advice about all dogs, at least by any passing pedant.
Then there is this adverbially-challenged sign, seen in the toilet of a dance studio:
The small print does not say, ‘leaving en pointe is appreciated but not obligatory’.
Of course, we understand what is meant in the context of where the sign is located. But these examples suggest that nobody checked that the words meant what the author thought they meant.
Sometimes the context gives no clue as to the meaning. Such as this handmade street sign.
More worryingly, these signs (below) on UK motorways are baffling. On the assumption that they are meant to mean something to the public, rather than being a private language, what is going on?
How many people know what these signs mean, without Googling them?
We are surrounded by jargon and words or symbols which we are assumed to have understood.
Have you heard radio journalists refer to ‘the package at the top of the programme …’
Good communication is supposed to be clear and single-minded. There is also a desire to serve a purpose. But signs trying to be helpful or comprehensive can mis-direct our attention.
A very common failure is where things get in the way of the intended communication. It may simply be trying to convey too many things ...
… or it may be the temptation to over-elaborate, eg explain an acronym for the benefit (presumably) of the intended target, in this case, those with psychosis.
My favourite example of unintentional overloading, as posted by @Nickparker, is this wonderfully seething sign in Westminster:
What comes across more than the information are the layers of attitude. As @AdContrarian Bob Hoffman recently pointed out, we can be too focused on the 'message' without realising what we are 'signalling'.
Are the inverted commas meant to make it sound friendlier, rather than snarky? Has the author ever seen a bike, let alone ‘tied’ one to railings? The use of ‘your’ as a plural is another give-away, pointing to the real issue behind most of the communication failures illustrated here.
I have a theory about why signs like these fail. Some say that this is a very intellectual issue, but I'm not so sure. Sorry.
I think it is more straightforward: it is about perspective. It is harder than you may think to adopt the perspective of others, but vitally important when trying to communicate with them.
It requires some imagination and empathy. You have to first identify and then put aside your own perspective. Many people are unable or unwilling to do either of these things.
But this is exactly what the qualitative research process is designed for and what a skilled practitioner can provide: reading the signs as seen and received, to help the sender to communicate better.