Ambiguous Visual Controls: No Running in the Airplane

The more you look the more you see ambiguous visual controls. Some are well-intentioned, while others appear to be half-hearted attempts to comply with some bureaucratic requirements. Others hint at hidden efficiencies or inefficiencies resulting in questionable visual controls. The fact that we get by in spite of these ambiguous visual controls either says a lot about our brains’ ability to figure out the message despite limited information, or that we really don’t pay attention.

Here is an example from a recent flight:


We can surmise that the small X next to the lit cigarette means “no smoking”. The location of the X is curious, and compared to the standard no smoking sign it looks more smoking than non. If you bumped the printer just right, the X might miss the red circle completely, making you think it was a smoking flight. Visual controls should avoid potential ambiguity and be designed to prevent any chance of misunderstanding.

Why not use the standard red circle with horizontal line that is near universal for “no smoking”? One hint is that the black X is printed with the fight number, passenger and seat at time of issue, onto the pre-printed color ticket on card stock. This would only make sense if there is or was in the recent past the option of a smoking flight, and therefore of not printing the black X. Otherwise we would expect the “no smoking” horizontal line or X to be part of the standard pre-printed card.

What then of this little guy? It can only mean that this was a “no running” flight and that passengers would need to get their exercise in other ways during the 12 hour journey. No doubt there are good reasons for this visual control, but it raises two questions: first, was there ever a need to announce the “no running” rule to passengers? It hardly seems possible that anyone would attempt to or succeed at getting very far in the crowded aisles. Second, the fact that the black X is printed on the red circle implies that there is or was a “running OK” flight category in the first place.

This may not be such a ridiculous idea. Almost as soon as our flight landed in Shanghai some passengers stood up and opened the overhead luggage storage compartments. The aircraft was still on the runway, but I suppose it’s never too early to get out of your seat when you’re doing business in China. Six flight attendants descended on these people to push them back into their seats.

The only disappointment on this flight was that we were promised “dinner, snake and breakfast” but I fell asleep after dinner and there was no snake left for me on the tray table when I woke up for breakfast.