Signs and psychology - The Sign Shed

Signs and psychology

Signs and psychology

Is your signage in tune with your mood?

Recent research has shown that so called ’emotionally intelligent’ signage is much more effective than signage that is not sensitive to human psychology. So how can you make your signs as emotionally intelligent as possible, and maximise their effects on the minds of people viewing them?

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Use colour for a subliminal, emotive effect

Much of the effectiveness of good signage is thought to lie in subliminal effects. For instance, road hazard signs that are displayed in orange and yellow are said to have an encouraging, positive effect on frustrated drivers. This is because these colours are culturally associated with uplifting, positive emotions. This is just what is needed to calm any potential road rage during a traffic jam!

Red, however, is traditionally the colour of warning, and forceful commands. This is why it tends to be reserved for urgent signs, or signs relating to hazards and danger of death, a no smoking sign for example.


A good sign should also include iconic images. For instance, even though steam trains are pretty much extinct in the UK, signs relating to railways will tend to feature images of steam trains rather than electric trains. This is because the steam train is a much more iconic image in the collective psyche. We recognise and respond to this image much more quickly than we do to a depiction of an electric train.


This leads on to the final point: signs need to be instantly recognisable. In the case of road signs and hazard signs, for instance, it is absolutely vital that the sign has an instant effect on the viewer and causes them to act quickly in a certain way. The term ‘cognitive overload’ refers to moments when a person’s thinking powers are bogged down by extraneous detail. As a consequence, they waste cognitive energy trying to work out what is going on and what they need to do. A sign that is cluttered, unclear, or hard to respond to instantly results in cognitive overload. Using powerfully emotive colours and iconic, immediately recognisable imagery (like the steam train) is a great way to ensure this does not happen.

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