First and foremost, let’s start with the basics. What is a sign? A sign is something that suggests the presence of a fact, condition, or quality not immediately evident; an indication an action or gesture used to convey an idea, desire, information, or command. Additionally, it can be a board or placard displayed in a place to advertise or convey information or direction, or a conventional figure or device that stands for a word, phrase or operation. I think we now have a firm understanding… like we didn’t before!
To some extent, signs are everywhere. They inform us, they sell to us, they provide directions and warn us of potential or real dangers. Signs can be broken down into numerous categories, for the sake of this blog I will limit it to 5: informative (this tree is a “xyz type”), directional (“Enter Here,” “Exit Only”), way-finding (“Fantasyland,” “Park/Event Exit”), instructional (“No Smoking Please,” “Do Not Feed the Animals”), and warnings (innocuous, “You may get wet” to life and death warnings, “High Voltage”).
Event, tourism, and attraction (ETA) environments are no different than any other environment when it comes to the use and needs of signage. ETA environments are saturated with signs and other visual forms of communications. It could be argued that such an abundance of signs in these environments results in the signs being ignored, becoming visual background noise. However, when done correctly, the constant instruction provided through signage can produce an environment that reflects specific rules and associations that in turn promotes more predictable behaviors.
Considering the nature of ETA environments (often temporary) and the relationship with invitees (patrons) on controlled premises, the goal of an ETA’s planner should be to develop sign packages that properly inform, direct, instruct and warn patrons regarding the intended use of the external and internal environment and available experiences offered. ETA organizers and planners typically have the basics down: food and beverage locations, restrooms, parking, cash machines, VIP areas, and way-finding. However, many of the critical signs often get overlooked.
Unfortunately, the most often overlooked or underdeveloped sign is a warning sign—also the most critical. Many confuse a “warning” sign with that of an instructional/informational sign. There is a significant difference between warnings and instructional/informational signs. A warning is an intimation, threat, or sign of impending danger or evil; advice to beware, as of a person or thing. We should use warnings to advise patrons and staff of harm and the intended consequences of said harm. This practice is often only achieved after an incident due to failed or inadequate policies/procedures to identify and/or eliminate/mitigate known and foreseeable hazards.
There is good news though! There is a science to developing and implementing signage—one that the ETA industry can easily follow and implement. Standards exist within industry that address the formats, colors, and symbols for safety signs used in environmental and facility applications, product applications, and accident prevention tags/tape. ANSI Z535 is a primary example of a standards writing body that develops such practices. It is important to note warning signs are the last resort of consumer safety and should only be used when engineering practices cannot remove the hazards associated with the experiences or conditions. If it has been determined that engineering the hazard out is not possible, then develop proper educational measures and enforcement tactics to prevent incidents. The use of established warning methods is a great place to start.