The Psychology of Signs

The importance of semiotics in a diverse workplace

by Kimberley de Selincourt

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They say a picture says a thousand words. So, it’s with no small pinch of irony that I shall spend the next two thousand or so words trying to explain why exactly that is, looking at why certain colours, fonts and images are used in signs, and why – given the wide array of languages spoken in the Middle East – this is so important to the world of safety.

Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols, and their use and interpretation. It looks not only at how meaning is created, but also how that message is communicated. Semiotics provide a way of seeing the world, and of understanding how the landscape and culture in which we live has a massive impact on all of us unconsciously. So it will come as no surprise, that when it comes to safety in a multicultural and multi-language workplace, semiotics come into play like there’s no tomorrow.

Language barriers

In the clearest and largest typeface available, you could just as readily write ‘Danger of Death’ as you could ‘Free Sausage Rolls’, and if that message is written in Arabic I will skip passed that message, totally oblivious. Likewise, if you’re working in the Middle East but your native tongue is not one of the countries main languages, you may struggle.

If, however, pictograms are used on those signs, I’ve a much greater chance of taking heed. With no words needed, we all know the signs for nuclear warning, no smoking, and high voltage. OSHA and ANSI encourage the use of safety symbols where beneficial. If a safety symbol helps convey a message more quickly or clearly, include it. Safety symbols may portray required actions, consequences, explicit direction, or the effects of interaction with certain chemicals, machines, and other hazards. More than one symbol may be used to show a sequence of events or convey additional information relating to a single hazard.

Research from the HSE suggests that migrant workers are probably not at any greater risk than other workers doing the same job. Before migrant workers are taken on and set to work, employers need to consider whether their migrant status presents additional risks which need to be taken into account. These may include, in particular, language and communication barriers.

“in a multicultural and multi-language workplace, semiotics come into play”

Communicating necessary health and safety information and training where there is no common language is a challenge for employers. Some have developed ways of conveying information non-verbally. Visual aids are popular with overseas workers, as they overcome many of the limitations of poor English language skills. However, the greater the range of methods used to communicate, the more successful workers perceived them to be. Any single method, used by itself, is unlikely to deliver a comprehensive message, understood by all workers.

In the HSE’s research, only half of the workers interviewed had good or fluent English. Many workers claimed that their inability to speak English was the reason why they were working below their qualifications or skills. Many admitted to pretending to understand English in case it stopped them getting work, or of losing their jobs if their lack of English became known. But this has serious implications, particularly in relation to health and safety training, where some admitted they had not been able to follow and understand the training they were given.

Although employers interviewed said that knowledge of English was not an essential requirement for work, lack of or poor English among migrant workers made supervision more difficult. In many cases, employers preferred that supervision should be carried out in English, except where the employer shared a common language with the workers

Using interpreters was also seen as a problem, because the employer did not know if instructions were being translated accurately or correctly. Also it was not easy to move workers to different jobs if their translators did not accompany them.

Even employees who do not speak English may need to understand a few simple key words and phrases relating to health and safety that others around them might use – obvious examples are “Fire!” and “Stop!”

Attentional deficits

Walk through any town or city and you’ll struggle to last 10 seconds without seeing a sign. Shopfront signage, road signs, advertising billboards. They all inform, instruct or advertise something, whether it’s our location, the name of the establishments we’re browsing, the life-changing products we simply have to buy, or sometimes, imminent dangers.

“communicating necessary health and safety information and training where there is no common language is a challenge for employers”

The latter, of course, is far more prevalent in the workplace than on while shopping at the mall, and yet when it comes to safety signage certain crossovers should be observed.

Do advertising companies crowd their billboards with endless prose? No, they employ the use of bold images and snappy taglines, because they know that people are busy. When fighting for attention – in any area of work, or life broadly – any message you want absorbed by your audience needs to be conveyed clearly and concisely.

So, it stands to reason that in the safety sector we would use pictures. Yet the problem with this, is that conveying simplicity is much more complex than it sounds. Anyone who’s ever tried to pull off the “I just threw this on, I haven’t even tried”-look, knows that to look like you’ve made no effort requires in itself a very great deal of effort indeed. To convey exactly what we want – whether that’s urgency, caution or compliance – many factors come into play, including our choice of colours and typography.

The basics

Before diving deeper into the whys and wherefores of signage, let’s first cover some of the essentials. When it comes to workplace safety signs, there are four types:

  • Prohibition and fire
  • Caution
  • Mandatory
  • Safe condition

In terms of colour, broadly speaking four main colours used get the most press: red, yellow, blue and green. As you can see from the following table which outlines the colour breakdown of safety signs, each colour is associated with one of the above listed meanings or levels of urgency.

Red signs

Red signs denote the prohibition of an action – they depict immediacy, danger, and the need to heed warning without delay. Red signs are used, for example, for stop signs, as well as fire related signs.

Yellow signs

If you see a yellow sign, watch out. These signify the risk of danger, and caution should be applied. They are used when identifying hazards, such as fires, explosions, and chemical radiation to name but a few, as well as identifying where they may be risks of collision obstacles.

Blue signs

If a sign is blue it is conveying a mandatory action. These will be displayed in situations requiring, for example, the mandatory wearing of personal protective equipment.

Green signs

In a sea of signs depicting all the above risks and perils, green signs usher in a welcome relief: safety! Follow a green sign and you’ll typically be guided to an emergency exit, safety shower, eye wash, or first aid point.

Typography

An understanding of how letterforms construct words visually, and how those words convey meaning, is essential for communication to be truly effective. In a fantastic article titled “Beyond words: how fonts make us feel” author Louise McWhinnie of the University of Technology Sydney, looks at how our reaction to communication is influenced by the fonts themselves.

Louise said: “It’s important to understand a font is more than simply a tool; it is, in fact, a character. Its visual character can impose on the text as much as a person’s voice, cadence and tone influences the reading of a speech.”

She illustrates this perfectly by recalling the 2012 announcement, made by CERN, that scientists had discovered the Higgs Boson-like particle. Unfortunately, Comic Sans – a font inspired by comic book lettering, intended for use in informal documents and children’s materials – was chosen to convey this hugely important development in particle physics, on an occasion of gravitas and significance.

She said: “What should have been the announcement of a major scientific discovery was devalued by an onlooker’s image of a lone scientist with a home PC: a stark illustration of how the choice of typeface can devalue content.”

Cultural colour perspectives

We’ve addressed the standard practise of colours used in safety signs, as per the UK’s Health and Safety (Safety Signs and Signals) Regulations 1996. The Regulations enact in UK law an EU Directive designed to harmonise signs across the EU so that signs across the member states will have the same meaning whichever country they are used in. But what about the Middle East?

“while globally there are many differences in how colours are perceived, there are enough similarities that universal sign colouring holds true”

While globally there are many differences in how colours are perceived, there are enough similarities that universal sign colouring holds true.

Caution or celebration?

Red, in the Middle East, evokes feelings of danger and caution. Some also consider it the colour of evil. Meanwhile in Eastern and Asian cultures, red is the colour of happiness, joy and celebration.

Morning, mourning, or envy?

Despite being recognised by many as the happiest colour and the European association between yellow and cheerful sunny days, in both Egypt and Latin America yellow is closely associated with mourning, while in Germany it is associated with envy. While yellow is not widely associated with caution, it is also a colour not widely found in, for example, the workplace, due to the typical colour palate of most industrial settings. This means that any sign denoting caution will be easy to see because it will stand up so vividly against a generally dull background.

Feeling positively blue

By and large blue is calming, just think tranquil waters and a cloudless sky. It is also considered the most positive and safest colour for a global audience, yet the coldness of blue is sometimes associated with depression. In the West it represents trust and authority, hence its suitability for signs depicting a mandatory action.

Strong roots in safety

For the majority of the Middle East, green is strongly associated with Islam, and represents strength, fertility, luck and wealth. In nature it is grass and trees, it is earthed and stable, so we identify it already, from a primal level, as safe. This deep association plays easily into the use of green for signs depicting safety.

Safety Signs and Signals

The Health and Safety (Safety Signs and Signals) Regulations 1996. Guidance on Regulations.

The UK’s Health and Safety Executive provides guidance for employers, duty holders and others who have responsibility for the control of workplaces, sites and premises. It is also for those operating equipment that requires verbal and/or non-verbal communications.

It sets out what you should do to comply with the Health and Safety (Safety, Signs and Signals) Regulations 1996.

Safety signs and signals are required where, despite putting in place all other relevant measures, a significant risk to the health and safety of employees and others remains.

Signs must be clear and legible, and should be used to identify actions that are prohibited (e.g. no access), safeguards that must be followed (e.g. ear protection must be worn), warning of a hazard (e.g. corrosive material) and to direct towards fire exits/equipment or first-aid equipment.

You should avoid using too many signs which may cause confusion.

The Regulations enact in UK law an EU Directive designed to harmonise signs across the EU so that signs across the member states will have the same meaning whichever country they are used in. Details of BS EN ISO 7010 are also included in the guidance.

Summary

By our very nature humans don’t give 100% all the time. We get distracted,sometimes very easily, and in any environment this could be dangerous, but in a hazardous environment this can lead to serious injuries. It’s when people feel they are being observed that they perform at their best, for example when a supervisor is on site and checking that everyone is complying with the use of PPE. As we all know however that supervisor cannot be there 24/7, and this is when signs really come into their own. They act as the ever present supervisor, reminding you to wear your hardhat, stop on the junction, and that the incredibly high-voltage beyond that point may kill you.

“with strong signage everyone can go home safely at the end of each day”

Yet signs are so prevalent in the built environment that we risk not even noticing their presence in the workplace.

This is why of course, the HSE regulations state that you should avoid using too many signs which may cause confusion. Executed properly however these signs provide vital information that keeps everyone in the workforce safe.

Even without the added dimensions of language hurdles and cultural interpretations, we all want messages conveyed as clearly and efficiently as possible. Attention is a finite resource, after all. But with language barriers added into the equation, matters certainly aren’t simplified.

Bibliography

  1. https://www.webdesignerdepot. com/2012/06/color-and-culturaldesign-considerations/
  2. https://signsalad.com/our-thoughts/ what-is-semiotics/
  3. https://www.egfl.org.uk/sites/default/ files/imported/categories/safety/hs/_ docs/hdbk/signsand_signa.doc
    “with strong signage everyone can go home safely at the end of each day”
    Safety Signage | ARTICLE
    65March 2020 | hsme
  4. https://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/ books/l64.htm
  5. https://www.fastsigns.co.uk/blog/ detail/2017/06/02/the-importanceof-colours-shapes-in-uk-safety-signs
  6. https://www.hse.gov.uk/ migrantworkers/language research.htm
  7. https://theconversation.com/ beyond-words-how-fonts-make- us-feel-18562
  8. https://www.graphicproducts.com/ articles/are-your-safety-signs-seenby-everybody/

Author Details

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Kimberley de Selincourt

Editor at Bay Publishing

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