Labels vs Signs

Screen Shot 2014-10-13 at 7.38.43 AMHave you ever been totally confounded while looking for a place?

Like trying to find an address…and although the street number is prominently displayed on the building or front door, the numbers do not seem to follow a logical pattern that helps you out? Maybe you have to figure out that the odd numbers are on one side of the street, and the even numbers on the other? But then you need to figure out if the numbers both increase in the same direction, or not. Or that some numbers are skipped…like the one you are looking for.

Or perhaps you have wandered endlessly and hopelessly around a building with a complicated layout, looking for someone to provide directions to your destination…which they usually do with a laugh about how hard it is to find your way around and that the signs don’t help.

LABELS are not SIGNS. 

Simply paraphrased, a label is a tag provided for organization, and is most useful for those with plenty of prior knowledge, while a sign is a tag providing instructions for those without prior knowledge.

SIGNS should provide enough information that someone who is unfamiliar with the building, street, product, etc. can quickly get their bearings (gain knowledge) and navigate to their goal. Once there, a LABEL could easily help them identify their target. For example, a SIGN might identify how a building is laid out, and be designed for someone who is totally new to get oriented. Then, when they find the appropriate wing and understand how the rooms are numbered, the LABEL on the door will help them identify the specific room they seek.

But too often, those who make signage put up LABELS instead: these make sense to them because they have enough knowledge to find their way around, but they lack the ability to project the experience of a novice, so those who need directions the most are left unassisted.

When designing signage, it’s crucial that the designer get input from strangers as to the usefulness of the signage…to ensure that they do not put up LABELS instead of SIGNS. Some of the things that need to be taken into account might be:

  • Are the users familiar with this type of sign? Would they understand the symbolism?
  • Is the sign placed where a user would instinctively think it should be?
  • Does something about the layout of the building challenge assumptions (like, the entrance is not on the ground floor) so a sign might be needed to clarify that?

Here are some examples of good labels, but poor signs:

This SIGN helps inform motorists of the direction to go where the street numbers increase
Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 4.38.52 PM

Compare that to this LABEL, that provides minimal information, and would not help someone who is unfamiliar with the neighborhood:
Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 4.40.10 PM

Remember: LABELS are not SIGNS. If your intent is to help people navigate something, you need SIGNS. If your intent it maintain organization, you want LABELS.

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