15 March 2011

Defaults, Signs and Doors

Let me start by stating the obvious: the default status of a door is "Usable." 

I mention that because in my experience, there's no need to put up a sign saying "This Door Works" on every door that works. People just assume if the door is there, it can be opened. It's a reasonable assumption. 

On the other hand, doors you can't use generally merit an explanatory sign to warn would-be openers that such behavior is not allowed. These signs generally say "Door Blocked" or "Use Other Door" or some such thing. With me so far?

And continuing the theme of "let me state the obvious," a red sign with white lettering generally means one thing: DANGER! Yes, they can also mean STOP or DO NOT ENTER, but these three concepts are related, are they not? They're all variations on the theme of "do not proceed." You hardly ever come across a red sign with white letters that says FREE KITTIES, and if you do, don't take one 'cause they're probably demon kitties.

Given these facts, can someone please explain the sign below? It's posted on the door that leads out of my office area. 

Tell me you didn't have to read it twice, just to be sure you read it right. And no, this is not an emergency exit. It's the door I go through several times a day.

Now, I get that as a military organization we use words like Egress. Fine. I won't quibble over word choice, even though it's a stupid word (ok, I'll quibble a little bit). My objection is that this sign is on the door I'm supposed to use. It gets better. The twin door right next to it, the one that's locked in place and cannot be opened... is unmarked.

Let me just say Aw, come on! Seriously? Who does that? Jeez! 


Alright, it's not a huge deal, but it does cause some unnecessary confusion. For example, we recently had a visitor to the office. He'd never been here before. When our meeting ended we all walked towards the exit. We were talking. He was distracted. He didn't read the sign, but simply did the logical thing - steered away from the RED DANGER sign he saw out of the corner of his eye and instead slammed into the unmarked, unopenable door. He didn't read the sign because a) he was in a conversation and b) he didn't think he'd have to read it, 'cause it's a RED DANGER sign. Like I said, demon kitties.

The point, of course, is that standards matter. They are powerful shortcuts to communication and when used well, they allow a person in a conversation to catch a warning and steer away from the locked door. Yes, inverting their meaning can be a useful exercise in creativity. It can make some thought-provoking art or deeply funny pranks. But sometimes the right answer is to let a door be a door, and put the red sign on the door that doesn't open.


LookingUp said...


I couldn't stop giggling at that.

Great post, and not just because of the kitties. I think it goes along with a post I think you wrote a while back about naming things based on what they're used for (mobile phones versus cell phones). It's helpful to have products that you know right away how they work -- either because of name or the color of the sign -- and you don't have to think about it. You know instictively how it works. A product like that can be the difference between life and death on the battlefield.

The Dan Ward said...

Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it!

Drew Duncan said...

Some people just don't pay attention; you can put up a sign that literally blocks a door, and many will still put their hand on the knob and turn before they realize they are walking into a large sign that says "DO NOT ENTER"

An example:
I work at St. Peter's Hospital in Albany, refinishing floors. Generally, when we refinish a floor, the room is totally unusable for about six hours. A few weeks ago, I completely emptied a patient room of everything that wasn't bolted down and put up three neon yellow signs that read
floor finishing in progress,
questions? Contact EVS.

Aside from the signs, I used two broom sticks to create an X across the door that would have to be moved, as well as two floor signs on the floor, and a piece of tape going across the doorway.
Two different nurses walked halfway into the room before realizing that they shouldn't be there.

You can't put up enough signs, because you can't underestimate the power of obliviousness.