Ignoring the Signs

Recently while doing a site analysis, we were watching pedestrian flow with a member of the transit facility staff. As we observed one particular area of confusion, the staff member off-handedly asked, “Why don’t people just read the signs?!?” It was actually a very good question.

Why don’t people read the signs? 

As environmental designers, it’s worth the time to study this conundrum to fully understand how we can impact future transit happiness. The answer is that there are a variety of reasons people aren’t reading signs – it’s usually some combination of the following that are to blame: 

  • in a rush
  • anxious / uncomfortable (out of element, security alertness)
  • looking another way (confused or distracted, reading another sign)
  • talking to someone, on the phone or otherwise occupied
  • don’t speak the language
  • don’t think they need a sign (“know” what they are doing)

Whatever the reason, as environmental designers we need to be aware that all of these distractions mean a very limited window of attention is reserved for us to get our visual communications message across. Being strategic about how to use that time will pay off in how they experience the space.


Guest Attention – a Natural Resource to be Preserved

Think of a visitor as a sponge – they can only absorb a certain amount of stimuli before they can’t take in any more. Reading signs takes a certain amount of attention, but so does managing baggage, leading family members, not bumping into other passengers, construction noise, PA announcements, music, and so on. Guests ‘sponges’ get saturated very quickly in a transit environment. 

A critical mistake some transit designers make is to expect that passengers have an unlimited ability to absorb any amount of signage thrown at them. This, of course is just not true. If a ‘regular’ audience (one that is not stressed – say, at a shopping mall) can absorb X signs per minute, a transit audience can only absorb (X – Y) signs per minute, where Y represents stress and other transit distractions. So we need to make sure that we’re focused on a value for (X-Y), and that we’re overseeing and paring down the total amount of visual information we’re asking the passenger to absorb. 

Nowhere is this more studied and measured than with airline pilots. With them, attention management is a closely monitored skill, and much research is put into finding new ways of helping them retain “situational awareness”- the same thing that will help our transit passengers have a successful and happy experience. One important factor of situational awareness is the efficiency of the persons visual scanning.

Visual Scanning is “ability to efficiently, quickly, and actively look for information relevant to your environment”  – how fast and where your eyes dart around and how much information can be taken in a given amount of time.1 Evidence shows visual scanning is greatly reduced in transit environments. Essentially making that sign you designed invisible to the guest.

All that said, environmental designers should learn to direct the eye – to treat every single display, sign, banner, branding, or other avoidable distraction as a variable to be rationed in the name of customer satisfaction.  Develop a “Hierarchy of Visual Importance” for all visual communications and enforce it – so non-essential communications or low priority signs will not overshadow essential ones. 

As environmental designers for transit, we need to promote absolute efficiency in visual communication.  Good communications make happier travelers. Happier travelers are more loyal and help to build a great City Brand.


Next time you’re in a transit environment, 
look around objectively.
Are there too many signs for efficient comprehension?
How many displays could go away and make it a cleaner, more friendly environment?