We all interact with public sector signage in our daily lives, often without realising it. We may encounter stop signs (traffic control) and exit signs (directions) or be asked to perform a specific action like switching off our mobiles. In fact, signage is like a silent persuader, nudging us to adopt behaviour that benefits society as a whole. Because the recipient doesn’t need any specialised equipment to understand signs and react to them, they can be understood by anyone and can affect their behaviour.

Reinforcing norms through public sector signage

Social and cultural norms reinforce expectations of behaviour in our society and public sector signs can have an impact. For example, using seat belts and designated no smoking areas are both social norms that have been reinforced by signage and public sector campaigns.

Design is critical however: a sign depicting three thieves taking wood from a national park actually increased the amount of wood being stolen by making the activity look like the norm.

Encouraging a change in behaviour
Signs may be used to remind people of the social norms of behaviour, but badly executed signs can create stressors that aggravate behaviour rather than changing it. For example, a school may attempt to address the issue of bullying with signs that reinforce the norms of respect and politeness.

But what if the wayfinding signage in the school creates rat runs where bullying incidents can occur, or they are so poorly planned, they create frustrations that lead to violent behaviour? Clarity of purpose in signage can help to reduce the circumstances in which unwanted behaviour can occur.

Direct or indirect?

Signs that communicate a message can also be used to influence behaviour. Directives in language are used to prompt a direct action, and this type of signage uses the same psychology and set of assumptions to prompt an action. That’s why the three arrow recycling sign has such common currency and prompts the viewer to sort and recycle their litter.

Yet this sign may not be obvious to a viewer from a different country for whom the three arrow symbol is unknown. In fact, it’s quite difficult to define the meaning of the sign without knowing its context, so an additional direction like ‘please recycle’ is necessary for the action to be carried out. The point is, if you want your public sector signage to be a nudge to positive behaviour, make sure the meaning can be directly inferred.

New designs, new behaviour

If you’re designing new public sector signage for the purposes of changing behaviour, make sure the purpose and the message are clear. If you’re re-evaluating existing signs, then think about communicating effectively to the widest possible audience with a clear and unambiguous message that will be effective in influencing public behaviour.

At The Sussex Sign Company, we’re experts in designing, manufacturing and installing public sector signs in East or West Sussex that can effectively change behaviour to reduce risks and reinforce norms. Contact us today on 01273 424900 for more details.

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