10 February 2011

The Effectiveness of Signs

I had to chuckle when I came across this sign taped to the wall of an unnamed university. Naturally, I whipped out my ever-present, oh-so-fuzzy little camera phone and took a picture or two.

This sign is clear and unambiguous. Where does the trash can belong? It belongs here. Right below the large, red arrow. There's even a helpful picture of a trash can, lest there be any confusion. So there's nothing wrong with the design of this sign, right? Right.

Well, let's zoom out a bit and see how things worked out:

Hmmmm.... I see the sign. I see the top of the trashcan. And yet, there seems to be no correlation between the sign's request and the can's position. Why is that?

Maybe it's unintended disobedience, rooted in the fact that the sign is tucked away behind the door and therefore goes unseen. Maybe it's deliberate, because that's an inconvenient place to put the trashcan.

Regardless of the reasion, this grievous transgression of refuse receptacle locationage tells me what we've got here is an ineffective sign. And that got me thinking.

Someone clearly cared enough to design, print and post the sign. But they didn't care enough to follow through, either by talking with the janitor or stopping by to make sure the trashcan is where it belongs (this is where the can was for the whole 4 weeks I was in class).

This isn't a big deal, but it's worth mentioning because it's a small example of how bigger things go wrong. See, even clear, unambiguous direction can fail to deliver results if not paired with follow-through, a solid understanding of the environment & situation and personal involvement. Someone wants the can behind the door, and someone else wants it in the middle of the hall. Who wins? Not the person who makes a sign. The winner is the one who actually moves the can.


Peter Modigliani said...


To quote the policy wonks from our organization: "If Program Managers would only read policy (that they write), then acquisitions would be so much more successful."

Nevermind that to the average PM who doesn't spend all day reading policy, often isn't aware of the flood of new policies that come out each month, how they apply to their program, and how they can best comply with said policies. Given the lengthy process to author or update policy and get it approved, many are often outdated. We also forget that policy is simply our Department's documented rules, which senior leaders are empowered to ammend or ignore. Then there's the countless debates with various headquarters staffs on the interpretation of each policy or conflicting policies.

Often times I think our 100+ page policies belong where that sign is pointing.

The Teflon Maj of L1 said...

Doctor Dan,

This Janitor is clearly a psychological genius... clearly the Hannibal Lectur of custodians... After careful evaluation of the anthropolitical office atmoshphere the janitor was angered that no one would actually throw trash away in the trash can.... To remedy he put up a sign in a non trash zone.... Due to the rebelious nature of that office, the reader of that sign will see it and instantly refuse to abide by the direction of the sign... The reader may say ..." what..!, nobody tells me where to throw away my trash " (thats what i would say)... Then the reader will recognize that there is a more convenient location that made more sense and actually had a trash can... In an act of pure unadultrated defiance the reader will throw away his trash in the can...Of course we all know, the rebel office employee has been duped, fooled into submission against his own conscious will and the Janitor has accomplished his goal with less work to do...QED... Pure genius I Say !!

The Dan Ward said...

Master Q - Wow... I think you're right. It's all part of a genius plot to manipulate people by making it an act of rebellion to do the right thing (i.e. put trash in the trash can).

Whoa. You're blowing my mind.

I wonder how many other things we could improve throughout the world by casting good actions as acts of defiance.

Egypt certainly comes to mind.

Forget incorporating best practices into formally accepted & approved processes. Far better to point out that it wold indeed be an act of rebellion to (insert desired behavior here).


The Teflon Maj of L1 said...

Your concept is in good company, The Soviets would "herd" their youth through their rebelious stage by allowing the KGB to secretly sponsor "Raves" throughout Moscow.. allowing the their citizens to be "rebelious" and eventually grow up to be good communists... ( It's all true, Reference Red Dawn)... But clearly we still have much learn from the Soviet Machine / experiment in government and society...

Anonymous said...

KGB, corporate policy wonks, and genius Egyptian rebel custodians notwithstanding, no one seemed to notice the complete lack of a recycling container.

The Dan Ward said...

@Anony - Not to worry. The recycling bins were just out of the camera's signt, not far from the trashcan...

Gabe said...

Q - Now that is awesome funny!