Why Signs Should Cater to Me

Meeting the needs of those who have the most trouble makes things better for everyone.

By David W. Stoesz

Illustration by Evan Dull

I’m directionally challenged. Like, REALLY challenged. I confidently drive in the opposite direction after stopping for gas. For the first few weeks at any job, I make my way back from the bathroom with hesitation and uncertainty. I regularly go in the wrong door in my own apartment.

My condition — which lacks an official diagnosis but is sometimes called “spatial dyslexia” — also makes it nearly impossible to learn dance steps or any other sequence of movements. Games that involve manipulating pieces in space fill me with dread. Chess, ugh! I HATE chess.

There are workarounds, like always parking on the top level of a parking garage, and repeating directions out loud like a mantra, and following them, no matter how much my brain tells me I’m going the wrong way. (Nice try, brain.) The biggest workaround for me was moving to Seattle, a hilly city dotted with landmarks and bounded by water. In contrast to my nightmarishly flat and featureless hometown, I can almost always orient myself in Seattle by simply looking up and finding the Space Needle, Mt. Rainier, or Queen Anne Hill.

While Seattle’s topography is a godsend, its signage is often frustrating. Is it reasonable to expect sign designers to cater to my condition? In a word, yes. It’s a well-established design principle that when you optimize for the least-able user, everyone benefits. An example is Good Grips, a best-selling line of kitchen implements originally designed for arthritics. Chunky handles that feel better in your hand and give you more leverage than standard can openers? Who wouldn’t want that?

This is sometimes called inclusive design, or the curb-cut effect. When you cut curbs and build ramps from the street to the sidewalk, it benefits not only people who use wheelchairs, but also people who use baby carriages, hand carts, skateboarders, bicycles, and scooters.

This principle — that you should optimize for the segment of users who will have the most trouble using your product — turns the usual way of looking at accessibility on its head. Rather than something to add to an otherwise complete design, accessibility should be a designer’s starting point.

This turns out to be an unexpectedly profound insight, with implications for social justice. In the philanthropy and social justice world the curb-cut effect is sometimes called targeted universalism. It also means that if you have trouble getting around for any reason — physical, cognitive, or neurological — you hold the key to a world of great design for everyone.

The signs marking Seattle’s Link light rail stations—a favorite target of Seattle’s local paper, The Stranger—could benefit greatly from applying this principle. The frustration of trying to navigate these stations starts before you enter. This sign marking the entrance to the University Street Station, for example, is three twisty thingies holding a Link light rail icon ten feet or so above the sidewalk. It’s a unique piece of public art, but an accessibility disaster.

Nowhere to be found on this easy-to-miss sign: The words “train” or “rail” — or even “link,” the shorthand used by Sound Transit (but no one else) for the train system. The sign clearly telling you that this is a train station is tucked in the darkness of a building’s overhang.

Contrast that with the blazingly iconic signs for the London tube, and the modernist, flatly informative Helvetica glory of the NYC subway.

If you do find your way inside a station, it’s time to meet the next obstacle: locating your platform. Here’s what you see when you enter the University Street station.

The train has one line. Its two directions are identified by their respective last stops. “Univ. of Washington Link,” in this case, means that this is the platform for the northbound train. Finding your platform is thus a research project: find a map (and good luck with that, by the way), find your destination, deduce the naming convention for south-bound and north-bound trains, and then match your findings with the signs marking the two platforms.

I would fix this by making the signs and maps one and the same. The signs directing you to your platform at the University Street Station would look like this:

The advantages of these signs

  • You don’t need to find a map. Map and sign are combined, for your convenience.
  • The direction of the train line and direction toward the correct platform are also the same.
  • Riders will be instantly and simultaneously oriented to where their platform is and where they are in the train system.
  • Directions are color coded (north=blue, south=red), a convention that could be followed throughout the train system.
  • Color coding would also mean that regular riders who know which direction they’re going won’t have to stop to read.
  • Cognitive load for all riders will thus be low.

Link light rail stations are also missing clear confirmation signs. Anxious, easily disoriented people need reassurance after they’ve chosen a direction that the direction is correct. There’s another group of people who would benefit from this confirmation: everyone. This same style of sign could be used on the platform itself to fulfill this function.

As much as I use the train in Seattle (excuse me, the Link light rail), I still get a little knot of anxiety when entering a station. And it doesn’t have to be this way. Signs like the ones above would be the equivalent of the chunky rubber handle of a Good Grips can opener. Meeting the needs of those with the most trouble makes things better for everyone.

Follow the writer’s Twitter account, Bad Signs, for more examples of terrible, no-good, very bad signs.