Concise, easy-to-understand instructions can mean the difference between success and failure—or even between life and death. In emergency situations, for instance, our reasoning abilities diminish. We just want to get out alive. Our brains are in crisis mode, not think-and-reflect mode.
When we create text to accompany life-saving equipment, it’s important that even terrified or badly injured people can understand it in a millisecond. How we phrase these brief instructions can determine whether our readers live or die.
Here’s a great example courtesy of my sister, who was traveling for work when she snapped these photos.
Okay, here’s an aircraft window and a little sign. Let’s get a closer look:
PUSH THIS SEAT BACK FORWARD DURING EMERGENCY EXIT.
Wait—what? This seat back…forward? At the same time? How is that even possible? Last time I checked, the laws of physics aren’t suspended during air travel. And—okay, I’m supposed to push back/forward while I’m emergency exiting? So now I’m doing three things at once. And that one little diagonal arrow points to the head of the guy in front of me, not to the seat.
Oh, wait, maybe that’s push the back of the seat forward. Okay. Is there a button or lever I need to hold down to push it forward? Am I pushing the back of the seat forward to the “upright and locked position,” or forward forward, as in toward the cockpit? You’re kidding. Have you ever tried to adjust an airplane seat? It’s nearly impossible under normal circumstances.
It took me five minutes to figure out what the little sign was trying to say. Had this been an actual emergency, I’d have been dead. Sure, maybe my survival instinct would have kicked in. But sitting in front of my computer, calm and comfortable, I still had trouble figuring it out. How well might a scared and disoriented passenger have done? I’d rather not take chances with that.
Thank goodness for the bright red, simply worded emergency handle above the little sign: EXIT—PULL. Above it, the red EXIT sign tells us very clearly where we can get out of the plane if it crashes. Even through a smoky cabin, passengers know almost instantly what to do. Not so much with the little sign. At about 5″ by 9″, it’s not miniscule, but neither is it large enough to grab our attention in poor visibility. Black lettering on a white background may be hard to read if the lights aren’t on. The white plastic of the sign probably doesn’t glow in the dark.
What about the flight crew? They’ll show passengers what to do, right? Sort of. Keep in mind that this is a small aircraft, with just one row of seats on either side of a narrow aisle. There are no flight attendants on board. Before the flight, the captain walks back to ask the people sitting in the exit row, “Are you able and willing to open this door in case of an emergency? Great! Thanks.” If the pilot and/or co-pilot are incapacitated after a crash, it’s up to passengers to follow the instructions on the emergency equipment and exits.
So how do we revise the little sign? We want to make the emergency exit procedure as easy to understand as possible. We might start with, “Push back of this seat forward to access emergency exit,” and redraw the arrow to point more toward the seat back. Does the sign need to be in a different place, or more than one place? Should we change the colors, and maybe have the smaller sign match the red and gray of the door handle and exit sign? Or should it stand out more, perhaps in safety orange with black text, to grab our attention? Perhaps not. We want passengers to understand that all these actions, procedures, and handles go together.
A one-panel illustration would help, too. Perhaps a safety card-style stick figure could demonstrate how and where to shove the seat’s back out of the way. After all, passengers may not speak or read English—or any other language, for that matter. Airport signage usually includes written instructions (in multiple languages) as well as clear illustrations. Better safe than sorry.
Even something as tiny as this eight-word sign in a small airplane demonstrates the urgency of our task. What makes sense to us now, in the relative comfort of our offices, may make no sense to frightened, badly hurt people in an unfamiliar place. Emergency instructions truly are a matter of life and death.