Sign Blindness Is Real - Here's What You Can Do About It
When you see the same signage every day, your brain stops paying attention to it. With the right strategy, you can compensate for sign blindness.
Sign, sign - everywhere a sign.
Signage is used on nearly every worksite as a way of capturing attention and alerting people to something important. But have you ever noticed that, over time, you don’t really see the signs anymore?
You're not alone. It's a phenomenon called "sign blindness" and it happens to everyone.
Essentially, when you encounter the same sign repeatedly, it starts getting filtered out with all the other unimportant details your brain chooses to ignore. Whether the sign states a friendly reminder or portends some horrible doom for those who would dare ignore it, it becomes a little less impactful each time you pass by it.
This is a concern for safety professionals, because workers who gradually stop noticing a sign might also overlook the hazards it warns against.
How Sign Blindness Works
While this is especially critical in occupational safety, it is an issue everywhere signs are used. The effect is well known by advertisers, for example, since they are in the business of capturing your attention and have an interest in knowing how to do so more effectively.
Your brain is hard at work directing and focusing attention to the most salient details in your environment. No matter how brightly colored and decorated with illustrations a sign may be, it might practically become invisible once you've viewed it a few times.
Sign blindness is a kind of perceptual filtering that happens at an unconscious level. We might feel like our eyes are cameras that collect complete pictures of the things around us, but that's not quite right. In reality, our brains construct a representation of our surroundings in order to help us navigate it. The picture we get is useful but not entirely accurate, and details that don't have any immediate importance are omitted entirely.
It's not just that you don't pay attention to those details. You also don't really see them at all - not in a meaningful way.
Unfortunately, that's what happens with safety signs. The first few times you encounter them, your brain will take in the information printed on them. But once it has the gist of it, that signage winds up in the perceptual scrapheap.
Types of Safety Signs
We can break safety signs down into four rough categories:
- Rule statements
- Attention or warning notifications
Under each category, the information ranges from critical (e.g. "Radioactive Materials") to simple reminders (including slogans and generic messaging like "Safety Is #1!").
If signs managed to grab and keep our attention every time we saw them, we could plaster them all over the place. Wherever workers could use a reminder, up goes a sign giving it to them.
That's not how our brains work, however. Since sign blindness is a powerful phenomenon, it's important to consider which signs are required for compliance or genuinely need attention, and which ones simply contribute to visual clutter.
Even after removing excess signage, you'll still need a strategy to ensure the signs that are up will remain effective.
(Learn about Health and Safety Symbols and Their Meanings)
How to Get the Most Out of Your Safety Signs
As long as we’re all running the same perceptual software, sign blindness will always be an issue. However, there are a few methods that will improve a sign's ability to capture attention over the long run.
Move Them Around
Signs have an unfortunate tendency to stay in one place. That's not such a bad thing if the audience is always changing (like in a train station), but when the same people see it every day, a static sign soon becomes part of the background.
On a static worksite, the notices themselves should become dynamic by moving and changing.
There are some limitations to this - safety signage is often placed in specific spots for good reasons. It has to be visible and accompany the hazard it warns against. Still, periodically shifting it even a few feet might be enough to make it a novel stimulus.
Digital display screens could be used in some circumstances. These screens allow you to automatically change how the information is displayed, which makes it easier to capture and keep attention.
(Check out these 20 Catchy Safety Slogans - And Why They Matter)
Add More Stimuli
When you add flashing lights or sounds to the signage, you're recruiting the other senses to help grab attention.
Riders on the London Underground have long heard the famous "mind the gap" announcement playing when the doors opened. The same message is printed as well, but while it's easy to overlook the lettering it's almost impossible to ignore the words ringing out loud.
Although this strategy can be effective, it should be used sparingly and only for critical messaging. Too many sirens, announcements, or blinking lights can become obnoxious and distracting. Dozens of signs clamoring for attention like your worksite was Times Square would probably do more harm than good.
It's also worth noting that the brain is highly adaptable and it might eventually manage to ignore these multi-stimulus safety signs as well. So, while it can be helpful, it's not a perfect solution.
Cut to the Chase
While attention spans vary from one person and one environment to the next, you can't expect most people to pay attention to a sign for more than a couple of seconds - even on their first viewing.
Because of that, you should make sure the sign conveys its core message with no frills. Keep it brief, clear, and cut out any unnecessary detail. If you can make your sign a single word, all the better.
Make good use of the signs non-verbal features as well. Not everyone can read English or read it quickly, so the shape, color, and other features of the sign should provide an indication of its message as well. That's why most countries have red octagons for their stop signs - drivers are likely to know what it means even if they can't read the word printed on it.
(Find out How to Choose the Right Sign Material)
Don't Crowd the Signs Together
Posting too many signs in the same location creates a cluster effect. The bold signs will stick out, but the others will be ignored.
It's a subset of sign blindness called "cluster sign blindness."
To avoid this, space out your signage and maintain some uniformity in color, brightness, and placement to ensure that all important signs can be observed. Always remove temporary signs once they no longer serve a purpose, since they can contribute to this clustering effect.
Signs are an important type of hazard control, but no employer should rely on them alone to keep a workplace safe. A combination of controls is preferable, especially once sign blindness kicks in.
The idea that workers choose to ignore signs out complacency is misguided. It's not a choice at all - we all eventually stop noticing the signs we encounter daily. It's how our brains are wired.
That doesn't make signage useless, but it is a challenge that needs to be addressed. Understanding how perception works allows safety professionals to adapt and improve the way signs are used. It's impossible to eliminate sign blindness, but with the right strategy, you can make your signage more effective.