Ambiguous Visual Controls

Ambiguous Visual Controls: Too Much Information

By Jon Miller Updated on May 24th, 2017

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.

  1. John Santomer

    April 28, 2011 - 12:21 am

    Dear Jon,
    Following your analysis, I think what this sign means is that there is no way going down (arrow) from this door – because it’s on the second floor (first row). Second row denotes there is no way going down for movement impaired people from this door. And lastly, congregating outside this door is not allowed during emergency-as who in their right sense would gather in the second floor veranda of a burning building…But then, in our culture the color green means life, means GO, means life supporting…thus the ambiguous contradiction. Dilemma indeed!

  2. Steve Antonelli

    April 28, 2011 - 3:23 am

    It’s definitely very confusing. I’ve been staring at the visual control photo for some time, and I still can’t make any sense out of it.
    Whether it’s visual control, or any other aspect of lean, I always like to keep things simple. The above is a clear example of somebody trying to do the right thing, but the message is lost in it’s complexity. This type of thing happens way too often. Most engineers have good intentions, but tend to focus on the more complicated solution.

  3. Konstantyn

    April 28, 2011 - 9:55 am

    Well, I went through the post and comments and still this message have no sense for me. I doubt that someone will understand this message right when looking a way to escape from burning building.

  4. Owen Berkeley-Hill

    April 28, 2011 - 9:26 pm

    Sorry John,
    I cannot see your problem. It’s as clear as a bell. A runner who is not looking where he is going smacks into a brick wall, loses balance falls down a floor into a guy in a wheel chair who is pushed off the edge onto a family from Wisconsin and crushes them. What could be clearer? 🙂
    Seriously, I think we need more examples of this form of silliness because things are often worse in plants. John Grout and Mike Darnell ( some great examples of Bad Designs which lead to errors in everyday life. Perhaps GPR should start something similar for those who struggle with the basics of Visual Control.
    Best wishes as always,

  5. Letícia

    January 12, 2021 - 3:51 pm

    I was way too confused about the picture. It´s happens something similiar over here in my plant.

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