Every day we encounter signs telling us what to do in public spaces. How to act, how to use the space, and above all, what not to do. No smoking, pick up after your dog, line up here. Signs like these are so ubiquitous that we often don’t even notice them. Sometimes, however, we encounter a variation on a typical rules and regulations sign that stands out and maybe even makes us smile. “If we see you smoking, we will assume you are on fire and react accordingly.” “Children play here, please pick up after your dog.” “Don’t worry – This line moves really quickly.”
Author Daniel H. Pink calls signs like these “emotionally intelligent signage”, and says that signs that consider and use readers’ emotional reactions are more likely to inspire compliance than their more blunt (or bland) and authoritarian counterparts. Emotionally intelligent signage acts in two main ways: by demonstrating empathy, and by encouraging empathy. Both approaches consider the viewer’s position and circumstance. “Don’t worry – This line moves really quickly”, for example, acknowledges and allays a viewer’s potential stress and frustration at the sight of a long line up, while at the same time asking them to stand in line in the appropriate place for service. “Children play here, please pick up after your dog”, on the other hand, plays on the viewer’s empathy. Both kinds of signs give the viewer context for the rule and an emotional reason to comply. Humour is another tool used by emotionally intelligent signage. “If we see you smoking, we will assume you are on fire and react accordingly” communicates the message that this is a no smoking area in a memorable way, without nagging.
Emotionally intelligent signage may take some extra words and more creativity than “No smoking”, but it has the added benefit of contributing to a positive environment that fosters positive emotions. Emotionally intelligent signage shows respect for the viewer by empathizing with their circumstances and needs. Milwaukee’s international airport has placed a sign over the benches after the security line identifying it as the “Recombobulation Area”, a humorous and empathetic acknowledgement of the “discombobulating” reality of airport security. Emotionally intelligent signage also shows respect for the viewer by providing reason and context for the rules it is asking the viewer to follow, and it fosters respect and positive interactions among the users of a space by encouraging empathy and reminding viewers that certain rules are in place for the mutual benefit of the users. “Drive like your kids live here” promotes empathy for the parents and children who want to live and play safely in a neighbourhood, and reminds the driver of their responsibility to drive safely. Use of emotional signage in public spaces stimulates individuals’ natural empathy and mindfulness of others, while raising rates of compliance and reducing the stress and frustration of being told what to do. Emotionally intelligent signage is more effective signage, and it may be good for society too.