Fixing the Open Sign

The Open Sign, how did a simple design go so wrong? The simple flip-board or sandwich board that let traffic passing by know that your business is open, has become a blue and red glow in every store ignored by everyone. What business owner dreaming of the constant stream of customers flowing into their business would not grab the eighty dollar open sign on their way to check out from the their local COSTCO? Good karma alone requires you throw that POS (point of sale) open sign into your cart.

Imagine there is a position you are told over and over that must be filled for you to have a successful business. Imagine as soon as you fill that role, that person is never listened to, often has communication issues, and only works for half the hours they were hired for. Taking that description, you roughly described all the problems with the modern open sign.

The usual suspects

Creating a New Open Sign

By itself, the open sign seems like a throw away artifact of the ubiquitous mom and pop shop. However, its sheer ubiquity across commerce in general is what gives the sign its real potential to become a more powerful tool. But first things first, what problems does this pitiful piece of design actually suffer from? The open sign is a singular example of a simple design intent being expressed in the worst way on every level possible. The design ignores form, color, accessibility, and legibility. Overall it fails in its one job: to consistently and effectively communicate to potential customers when its owner’s service is available to the public.

Color Choices that Make Sense

Color would have to be the most obvious of the problems the average open sign suffers from. We can sort these problems into two buckets. 1. Color as the larger population understands it and 2.As the colorblind and low vision population perceives color. For the larger population the red “OPEN,” screams “GO AWAY”. So much so, red is the color of choice for international traffic designers to say “Not Here Folks.”

A deeper dive into color tells us what it means for sufferers of color blindness. The color choices become a bland mess. Giving no other hint what its message is to a customer.

Open Sign for the normal sighted
Open Sign for suffers of Monochromacy-Achromatopsia
Open Sign for suffers of Green-Blind Deuteranopia (note the utter sameness of the green and red sign)

So, how do we fix the color choices of the open sign? Suffers of Green-Blind Deuteranopia will tell you green and red combinations do no good for them. However, the red and blue of the open sign seem to still differentiate from one another across multiple types of color blindness. A quick color study of this theory proves out blue and red continue to be powerful even to the color blind.

Blue, Green and Red as they appear to suffers of Green-Blind Deuteranopia (note blue still differentiates from red strongly)

Blue stays vivid while red and green turn to brown. This takes us back to our traffic signage designer, form must and language must fill in for color. Imagine a non-English speaker or an illiterate person trying do divine what these red characters must be saying. Red symbols on blue are standards for the signage that is meant to discourage entry, so shape and symbolism become true standard bearers of a globally understood open sign.

For anyone who does not understand English, the jumble of red and blue just says nope.

A Shape to Say Open

When color and language fail, we must turn to form to carry the day. International traffic sign design has known this for years. The current open sign borrows its form from an artifact of 90’s graphic design and adds nothing to its functionality.

Want it to look cool? Well, just put it in an oval.

From iconography to color forms, designers who work with wayfinding systems constantly work with these nonverbal visual-first methodologies as a fallback for reinforcing meaning of signage.

What form could a new open sign borrow from to effectively communicate its message to the masses? Stepping back and looking at what global design systems engage the public at a global scale, mass transit sign systems clearly become an option as a metaphor for our new sign to borrow from.

While many signs say “access allowed” or “stop” and “no entry” one shape is understood to have both meanings.

Specifically the no entry sign and the blue circle and arrow of directional road signage. Of all signs these two are clearly legible to pedestrians and drivers alike and share a shape. A shared shape could make for a dual purpose sign that works both open and closed hours.

Exploring the Missing Requirements

So where else does the open sign fail, if we revisit our metaphor of the open sign as an employee; we revisit the idea it only works for half the hours it is needed for. At least the old paper hung sign could be flipped from open to closed. The cumbersome LED COSTCO special can only simply be turned off (if one remembers to turn it off at the end of the day). To expound on that, it only addresses the community with one message. However, if you are a small business owner you have a much more flexible view of simply being open or closed small business owners can be in and out gone to the WC or out for lunch. For a business owner,you want to talk to street traffic in a much more dynamic way:

15 minutes till open

15 minutes till closed

No wait right now

Temporary offers to increase occupancy ($3 pints for the next hour)

BRB 15 minutes

Oh, and Open/Closed of course

Designing a Better Open Sign (finally)

If we combine a few elements discussed above with a smart device to add a new layer of communication(think something like a nest). We start to to have a new product that could not only improve the open sign but evolve it to be a tool for improving a community.

How can a sign improve a community though? Often way-finding systems borrow from architecture for guiding principles. Such is the case here, our new open sign will be borrowing from the world of Architecture. Specifically principles of urban infill & Architecture:

Principles of Urban Architecture:

Character: Architecture should either protect or enhance the community they are being built in.

Continuity & enclosure: Architecture should connect streets and public spaces and deepen a sense of community.

Quality of public realm: Create high quality public spaces that are attractive, safe, comfortable, well maintained, welcoming and accessible to everyone.

Ease of movement: Architecture must work to bring pedestrian traffic to life by not only addressing the needs of its inhabitants but the pedestrians at a surface level.

Legibility: Create a place that both inhabitants and visitors can understand and easily navigate.

Adaptability: Create architecture that can adapt to change.

Diversity: Create architecture that encourages a mix of uses.

Sustainability: Urban Architecture address social, economic and environmentally sustainability for the future.

How can a simple sign do all of these things? Realizing that the sign is an opportunity for business owners to engage street level traffic. Enhancing the LED open sign with basic Bluetooth and wifi abilities the sign could be imbued with all the tools to turn any strip mall storefront closer toward architecture and a way for business’ to begin to talk to its community.

An open sign cant rely on windows, it has to be able to be installed outside of a business.

Character: The round shape and durably made the new open sign allows for it to be attached anywhere. Wifi enabled it does not have to be in arms reach to operate it, this allows it to become apart of the community. The sign could go so far to be able to be dimmed so that quiet neighborhoods don’t have to have the light pollution of a multiple business screaming OPEN at the top of it’s lungs and maintaining the posterity of the neighborhood.

Allowing for site specific mounting, the open sign can be seen from a distance within any neighborhood.

Ease of movement & Legibility: Getting the open sign out of the window and into the built environment allows it to be in a location to speak to a community. From blocks away a business can communicate. Bluetooth enabled signs could allow for multiple signs on multiple facades to sync up. Simpler, color and shape bases signage allows for all to understand what is happening at any given local.

An open sign that can actually work for it’s owner and contribute to its community

Diversity: Adding features to the open sign through an accompanying mobile app each business can tailor their sign to their needs. Set their own ours, set a brb message, temporary messaging the ability to dim the sign based on neighborhood settings.

Adaptability With a smart sign one could have the ability to set a Be Right Back message for an employee bathroom break without a hand scrawled sign in the window. During slow moments of business the sign would have the ability to set temporary messages to pull in street traffic until business rebounds. Imagine a sign that tied into a open sign website. A potential customer could see multiple temporary messages for open sign users in the area to help make their shopping and dining decisions.

Sustainability Surely if such a sign were actually made it would have to be environmentally friendly, low energy, ability to brighten and darken throughout the day, maybe even solar powered. Hopefully, it could be a device that would even have resale value to keep old signs out of the landfill.

Made from materials to weather being outside, stuffed with enough technology to be considered a Smart SIgn

Simple, clean, easy to read around the globe, and creates a dialogue with customers. While the above may not be the right design I believe it is proof that it is something worth improving.