Among the side benefits of international travel are meeting interesting new people, learning about the local culture and running into ambiguous visual controls. Jet lag slows the brain and renders it unable to quickly find meaning in ambiguous visual controls, demanding clear simple signals instead. Yesterday I saw the visual control above on the door leading out to the veranda of the 2nd floor of my hotel.
Taken separately, these 4 visuals are fairly clear. Together, they are ambiguous. The top one is a variation of the “emergency exit” sign we see inside of many buildings. It shows a person moving towards a rectangle, presumably an exit. Yet the arrow which normally points the person towards the door points down. This is confusing, but perhaps indicates that this is the 2nd floor, and we must go down stairs. Below this is the wheelchair visual which usually denotes access for people in wheelchairs or who are otherwise movement-impaired. Yet I saw no ramp outside. The next visual control is the down arrow again, confusingly of the similar size and shape as the wheelchair sticker, making it seem at a glance as if they are a pair. I don’t know what to make of this, but it acts to reinforce the “exit” sticker at the top. Then there is the “everybody get together” sticker, otherwise known as “gathering point” sticker. Thanks to the first sticker which alerts me that the theme is “emergency exit” it is possible to guess that this 2nd floor veranda is a place where people are expected to congregate in case of an emergency.
It took some staring at this visual to grasp what it meant for me. Perhaps I was trying too hard to “read” these symbols, understand their narrative flow from top to bottom. If it had been a single-message visual control this would not have happened. An emergency exit visual control that causes one to pause and ponder somewhat harms its purpose. Luckily there was no emergency, and in a real emergency I would have skipped down the stairs, not congregated on the 2nd floor balcony of a burning building.
This is a case where an attempt by the staff to be helpful in posting emergency exit information for various audiences and purposes resulted in too much information, creating an ambiguous visual control.