By Mary Louise VanNatta 

Mask required! Stay six feet apart! Don’t run with scissors! 

Are you feeling overwhelmed by all the new COVID-19 safety signs? You’re not alone. As regulations are increasing, businesses are adapting. Protecting public health is critical. However, people generally don’t like being told what to (SHOCKING). While you certainly can’t convince everyone to follow the rules, here are some ways to make your signs more effective.

Make sure the demand is convenient

People like convenience. If the sign says “please recycle” but the recycle bin is far away, you’ll see bottles in the trash. Instructions need to be easy to follow. For example, if your gym expects you to wipe down your equipment, a spray bottle and towel need to be readily available. 

Pick the right location

A sign should be near the site of the desired action. A sign that says “please wash your hands” should be near a sink. If posted elsewhere, people will forget. Also, signs posted near other signage, logos, or pictures might get overlooked. Make sure your sign is the main attraction. 

Clear instructions

A good sign gives clear instructions. However, not all signs need to be presented the same way. If your audience is familiar with specific pictures or symbols, “i.e., the three recycling arrows,” an image will get the job done. Signs can also provide indirect instructions. A sign that says “trash can near the stairs” will often produce the same result as “please dispose of trash.” 

Color and font

The contrast between the foreground and the background is critical in readability. Know your colors.  

  • Black: Power, death, mystery, formal (office building, overwhelming visual environments, hotel, indoor)
  • White: Light, goodness, innocence (Museum office building, retail, hospital, indoor & outdoor.)
  • Red: Fire, blood, danger (Warning, public spaces, indoor/outdoor)
  • Blue: Trust, loyalty, intelligence (Highway/railway, hotel, retail, public spaces, indoor/outdoor)
  • Yellow: Energy, happiness ( road signs, public spaces, indoor/outdoor)

For heaven’s sake, make the font big enough. Research shows that Helvetica is the best, followed by Roboto, Avenir, and Calibri. Never Comic Sans, unless you run a daycare.

Don’t worry about being polite

While your mom might want you to say “please” and “thank you,” your signs don’t.

A study published by the Center for Applied Behavior Systems found that people complied with the sign “please don’t litter” and “you must not litter” at similar rates. Research published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology found that the signs “pitch in!” and “littering is unlawful and subject to a $10 fine” achieved similar compliance outcomes. In other words, polite, non-demanding language does not guarantee or hinder compliance. If you find yourself short on space, “please” and “thank you” can be removed.

By adhering to a few simple guidelines, you can make your signs substantially more effective and stop those needless scissor-running injuries.

Mary Louise VanNatta, APR, CAE, is the CEO of VanNatta Public Relations, a PR, event planning, and consulting firm in Salem, Oregon.


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