Using Signs and Graphics to Change Behavior During a Pandemic

Healthy Interactions in Public Space

In just a few months, the ways in which we share public spaces with other people has changed dramatically. To slow the spread of COVID-19 and keep ourselves and others healthy, we have been told to “social distance.” In the early stages of the pandemic, social distancing looked more like social isolation with the directive to stay-at-home. With businesses shut down, people working from home, and most dining and entertainment options shuttered, it was pretty easy to social distance. Instructions to keep us healthy and slow the spread were simple and easy to remember:

        • Wash your hands
        • Don’t touch your face
        • Stay six feet apart
        • Stay home

But this wasn’t sustainable. More recently, communities have begun the slow and careful process of opening back up and since the virus isn’t gone, we are adapting to living in a pandemic-stricken world.

Opening up has changed the game completely with an onslaught of new protocols. Some protocols change the design and set-up of places and spaces. For example, restaurants have fewer tables that are set-up farther apart; stores have lower capacity limits and plexi-glass is now part of the check-out experience; even some streets downtown are closed off to vehicles, making more space for foot-traffic and create more social distance. These measures are all an effort to re-establish social living and develop new habits in public spaces so we can reopen successfully and be ready for business.

There hasn’t been much time for organizations and businesses to shift gears and implement these changes before opening back up. Online pre-made COVID-19 signage is plentiful, some as free templates and others for purchase. When I’ve been out and about, I’ve seen how diligently businesses are trying to follow these protocols so that they can remain open — they know that building trust in how they are managing people in their establishment is the key to getting patrons to return.

Some places are very successful with managing people traffic, but others seem unable to keep patrons’ attention and/or enforce the social distancing protocols. This is generally no fault of the business or organization; rather it’s reflective of how difficult it is to change learned behaviors. Whether it’s standing two feet behind the person in front of you at the checkout or sitting next to a stranger on a park bench – we are all challenged with the impulse to do things as we always have.

So, what next? How do we get people to be mindful of how they move through and interact with others in public spaces?

As visual communicators and wayfinding consultants, we notice things like how a space is set up, the signage around it, and the communications on those signs; and we’ve been observing how public parks, trails, stores and restaurants have been using the readily available signage and graphics resources to manage foot traffic. These tools are necessary for our current reality, but we’ve also identified a few short-comings and lost best-practices, which ultimately can put people, both patrons and employees, at risk, interrupt the desired experience, and therefore negatively impact a place’s image and reputation. The last thing any public place or business wants is to open up, only to have to close back down again whether it’s due to sick employees or lack of business.

Top 6 Mistakes When Using Signs and
Graphics to Manage People Traffic

Changing human behavior is never easy, but using signs and graphics to change behavior, direct and instruct is also not a new concept. Guide Studio has been helping our place-based clients guide, direct and inform people through years of experience with branding, marketing communications and wayfinding work — so it’s easy to identify issues with how all these new protocols and instructions are being introduced in public spaces — and how to make quick changes so these new systems work better.

  • The right message, the right tone, the right time matters. We’ve observed a few things that fall into the category of “right message, right tone, right time.”
          • Use of clever language to present critical instruction. We are all for representing your brand in the voice that your patrons know and love, but this should be balanced with very clear instruction that can be quickly understood. Leave lengthier instructions for email or handouts – not signs. These signs are not about differentiating yourself; they are about setting parameters and expectations for how you expect people to behave in your space.
          • Instruction in the right place and at right time. Will things look really different for patrons? Do they have to proceed to one door instead of multiple entrances? Will they be required to wear masks to enter? Instructions that are needed before a visit should be presented well before the step through that threshold. If you have a strong social media presence or communicate with your audiences via email, use social media and email campaigns to set appropriate expectations early, so people visiting feel confident that they know what to do, and may even appreciate that you’re taking proper precautions. Signs should also be placed at the point of arrival in locations that alert people before they even enter.
  • Size matters. One of the biggest issues we have observed in the use of COVID-19 signs and graphics is size. An 8.5 x 11 sign will not capture anyone’s attention in a large open public space, especially when they’re not looking for it. It’s frustrating (and sometimes embarrassing) to be told “you did it wrong” and be directed to a sign that looks like a postage stamp at your entry. In wayfinding, signs and messages are only effective if they are sized and placed to the context in which they are located. Need to instruct vehicles to park in a different area? Make sure those directional messages are spelled out with 3”-6” letter heights depending on speed of travel. Use temporary standing or sandwich board signs to instruct people before entry. Need to get their attention at the door? You’re going to need something bigger than 8.5 x 11 – something legible from a distance so they notice it before they get to the door and can read it without stopping at the door. Test it out. Mock-it up and step back to see if you can read it and if the instructions are clear. Observe how people respond to the signage and ask colleagues and others for their experience and feedback before committing to any permanent signage.
  • Proper placement and cues. It’s not enough to post a new sign with new instructions and think you have it covered. Legally you may be covered but you may not change anyone’s behavior. For example, I was recently walking on a trail close to my home, but based on where I entered, I wasn’t told that they wanted people to walk in one direction. I did, however, discover it much later into my walk when everyone was walking in the opposite direction. It’s an easy fix but I immediately said to myself “Why didn’t they tell me sooner?” If you are changing movement patterns in your places and spaces, it’s important to map out travel paths and entry points so you can inform everyone as quickly as possible.
  • Repetition. Repetition. People are creatures of habit, so when you are looking to change behaviors especially for people who are comfortable with navigating your places and spaces, it’s important to tell them more than once (probably even more than twice). In our office, we cite “The Rule of 7.” If we establish a new process, we need to go over that process with our team at least 7 times. If we share once and they don’t follow it, shame on us. It’s human nature. At this time, multiple reminders around new patterns and behaviors are necessary. Don’t worry about being redundant.
  • Consistent system. Consistency in your visuals and consistent usage is always important in a successful sign and graphics system. If you are purchasing from a vendor with pre-designed signs, do they visually look like they work together? Or do they look like they belong in completely different places? Use of graphic symbols that look like a family, the same fonts on all signs, or use of a single, specific background color for an instructional sign will go a long way in capturing attention and alerting them to the fact that this is not just a random sign, but a series of information. We all follow the green and white highway signs no matter where we are because it’s used across the country consistently and it’s a system of information that has been designed in a way to easily recognize and quickly instruct for a specific behavior on the highway.
  • This is and isn’t about your brand. Your brand is a promise of a great experience — so in that sense these new signs are about supporting a great, albeit different, experience than we have had before. However, they should look different from the signs and graphics that typically adorn your place. That’s not to say they can’t be nicely designed and fit your brand image, but they need to look different enough that people pay attention to the fact that they represent new information about your place.

There is a lot of new information going on in this world, but there are tried-and-true best practices that still apply when using signs and graphics to change behavior. If you have found yourself struggling to determine which information is best for your particular place or space, or still see people not following the information you have put out, Guide is here to help. We have put together a fast-turnaround sign plan service that will help you translate these new protocols specifically for your place and situation. These plans allow for use of already purchased signs and graphics, or if you desire a more custom approach and/or permanent signage, we have pre-determined messages and sign templates ready to customize so you can open up as soon as possible.

Contact us for a free consultation and no-obligation quote.



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