25. What’s wrong with this notice?

When we are asked to write text for a notice, saying the right thing in the right way gets avoids our words getting in the way of the message and is more likely to gain compliance.

AS CITIZEN JOURNALISTS we might be asked to help word notices. How we do that influences the attention people give them. If we can make people feel they are doing something positive and good we have a better chance of getting compliance.

A wrongly-worded message can be its own worst enemy, like this notice that appears in Sydney buses. Whoever wrote the words intended the message to encourage people to travel with sufficient credit on their OPAL cards. The cards are used for government buses, train and ferry travel in Sydney.

Why is this the wrong message? The reason lies in how it is stated. It fails to state the cord message: keep your OPAL card topped up with enough credit for your travels.

The wrong tone

The tone of the message is wrong because:

  • it ignores the reality that those traveling with insufficient funds are a very small minority of passengers; it warns that smaller number of people rather than encouraging them to join the majority who travel with sufficient funds
  • it sets the wrong tone to encourage the preferred behaviour
  • it threatens rather than encourages
  • it is coercive, threatening fines
  • it states ‘offence’ in a large, bold typeface, setting a tone of confrontation
  • the graphic shows a particular level of insufficient funds which regular public transport users would know it too low, however visitors to the city might not; why not start the amount that is the actual lower limit for a journey?
  • potentially, its officious tone encourages resentment.

This is not being picky. Notices should not be ambiguous and open to interpretation.

Seek cooperation not confrontation

It is better to seek cooperation rather than threaten people, including the great majority who travel with sufficient funds on their OPAL cards.

How would we word the sign in a way that asks for cooperation rather than cajoling and threatening? What about something like this?

Have you enough credit on your OPAL card for your next journey?
Keeping your OPAL card topped-up makes your travel easier.
Top-up at a bus stop kiosk or from stores selling OPAL cards.
Find out more here: www.xxxxxx.gov.au”.


It’s speedier to travel when you have sufficient credit on your OPAL card.
Check your balance on the screen when getting on or off the bus. 
Top-up at a bus stop kiosk or from stores selling OPAL cards.
Find out more here: www.xxxxxx.gov.au”.


A photo of a forlorn looking person with the message:

I was in such a hurry I forgot to check whether I had sufficient funds left on my OPAL card.
Now I have missed my appointment because I could not travel and had to find somewhere to top-up my card.
Next time I’ll check my balance when I get off the bus.
Find out more here: www.xxxxxx.gov.au”.

State your message clearly

The message in the rewordings are clear. They ask people to check their card’s balance when they enter or leave the bus and to top it up if their funds are low. That too is the hidden message on the sign in the photo, however it lurches into warning and coercion and reads like it was written by someone in government, which it was. The message should not about too-low a balance being an offence. It is really about keeping your OPAL card topped-up.

The rewordings seek cooperation with a soft tone rather than the authoritarian messages of the signs in the buses. People are more likely to comply because most people respond positively to reasonable requests.

While the threatening message might influence those susceptible to intimidation it is a better approach to seek cooperation and to let people feel they are doing something good.

Design principles for notices

  • what is the core message the notice is to deliver? what do you want people to do? keep it the main thing
  • avoid ambiguity and the need to interpret meaning
  • use few words
  • write in simple, widely-understood language
  • use an easy-to-read typeface appropriate for signage, nothing fancy
  • make the typeface large enough for people to read from several metres distance and for people wearing glasses or with poor eyesight to easily read
  • avoid underlining and bold emphasis, the wording should convey what you want to say
  • keep graphics uncluttered and clear
  • use colour for typefaces and graphics that do not visually clash and that complement one another, unless it is intentional
  • only one message to a notice
  • include a URL on our notice where people can find out moreif there is subsidiary information like where to learn more, place it in a smaller
  • typeface after the main message
  • include the name/logo of the organisation responsible for the sign.