Signage and Psychology in the Industrial Workplace

By Jack Rubinger and Robby Slaughter February 11, 2014

We’ve all seen the standard safety, warning and danger signs. We need to post them to satisfy the law, but do they really impact how we think and how we behave? A recent case study suggests that crafting a smart message can make a huge difference.

It seems a restroom in the U.K. was continuously covered in graffiti despite daily cleaning. We’re all familiar with signage imploring us to keep spaces clean, and how often they seem totally ineffective. Each day, Professor T. Steuart Watson and his graduate students meticulously counted how many marks were on each wall of the restrooms. New graffiti appeared daily, in every one of the restrooms. Wilson took an unconventional approach to anti-graffiti warnings. He simply taped a sign on the wall that read, “A local licensed doctor has agreed to donate a set amount of money to the local chapter of the United Way for each day this wall remains free of any writing, drawing or other markings.”

The result three months later? No graffiti. A completely successful and effective communication.

Watson believes that his sign influenced a positive motivation. Bathroom visitors chose not to leave graffiti because it felt good to support the philanthropic cause. Would this strategy work in the industrial workplace? The short answer is yes.

Anyone who has been to a factory, warehouse or other facility is familiar with the sign in all capital letters that states: “NOTICE: EMPLOYEE THEFT WILL BE PROSECUTED.” These signs are designed to reduce “shrinkage” by telling people they are being monitored.

Empirical research, according to Carl R. Persing, Ph.D., Metrus Group, Inc., and Kristin Repchick, George Mason University, has shown that in order for a warning to be effective there are several factors in play including the message design, topic or type of issue being warned, the situation, and the person.

But if employees get too used to seeing the same poster in the same location, it becomes part of the background, and they no longer “see” the sign.

Also, concrete, simple graphics—such as a hand with a blade cutting it—are more effective than abstract images whose meaning must be learned. These variables enhance recognition and retention.

Finally, safety culture and climate are strong determinants of safety behavior. So is leadership. If leadership incentivizes safe behavior while punishing unsafe behavior, and trains and mandates safety, employees will more likely attend to the sign and remember and internalize its message.

“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Department of Transportation have specific requirements for signs and labels including size, colors and wording. To assure compliance, make sure that you review signage requirements with your environmental health and safety professional and/or query the regulatory agency website,” said Matthew Comi, environmental health and safety specialist for BASF.

There are four basic options for creating signage in the industrial workplace:

  • Durable metal signs that will last for decades.
  • Signage from a catalog, perfect for generic signs.
  • Paint and stencils.
  • Customizable labeling systems that include labeling software and access to thousands of OSHA, National Fire Protection Association and other important symbols and graphics.

Psychology and signage is a deep subject. There’s no shortage of case studies and experts who’ll add their two cents. The big message here is to think very long and hard about each situation you may face and talk to others who’ve been in similar situations. See what has worked and what hasn’t. Then, use your experience to craft the most potent message for your workplace.

Jack Rubinger is manager of media relations for Graphic Products, a global leader in workplace labeling and signage. Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert at business consultancy AccelaWork.​​



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