Too Much Information: 3 Frustrating Problems With Signage

Too Much Information: 3 Frustrating Problems with Signage:  What message does your signage send to your students?  Is it easy to find what they need, or overwhelming?

Good signage is vital in a learning space.  Ideally, your students should be able to walk into your space, look around, and find the things that they need without having to ask for help.  Realistically, I know that this isn’t usually what happens, but it’s the goal to aim for. In general, I would say that very few schools err on the side of too little signage.  It’s pretty rare to walk into a school library that doesn’t at least have their fiction, non-fiction, and other sections labeled.  Or a classroom or makerspace that doesn’t have some sort of directions posted or bins labeled.

Too Much Information – What is Your Signage Saying?

More often than not, there area lot of problems with our signage that drive our students away.  And we usually aren’t even aware that it’s happening.  These are a few of the common problems I’ve found with library/learning space/classroom signage and some suggestions on how to remedy them:

Visual Overload

The problem I usually find isn’t that there isn’t enough signage – it’s that there’s so much signage that the average user doesn’t know where to start when looking around.  There are so many messages. You don’t just have a sign labeling non-fiction and a sign for each of the Dewey sections; there’s signs for each individual shelf. Shelf labels.  Big signs. End-cap signs with die-cut labels advertising a program. Lots and lots of posters collected from over the years. Signs with instructions on how to use the OPAC. Signs with library rules on them.  Bulletin board displays. Flyers for various programs. Collections of forms that students use.

All of these things aren’t necessarily bad in and of themselves.  But when you combine them all together, it can become a massive visual overload.  There’s too much information. Too much noise. Too much stimulus. For our students (and for adults as well) this can be overwhelming.  It can lead you to feel like shutting down. To just grab a book from a nearby display because it’s too exhausting to search for what you want.

Action steps:  Take a signage inventory and ask yourself – is this sign really needed?  Can I communicate this information in another way? Can I cut the verbiage in half?

Here’s some changes you can make:

  • Get rid of the signage you don’t need.  
  • Try to create visual consistency by using the same fonts and colors throughout (I’m looking at you Canva Pro Brand Kit).  Visual consistency helps to tone down the visual noise.
  • For necessary information that you can’t take down (rules, instructions, etc.) cut the number of words used on the sign down as much as possible.  Remember: “Brevity is the soul of wit”

Conflicting Messages

When you first walk in, you see a sign that says “Welcome to the library!  We’re so glad you’re here”. Then when you go further, you see signs like these: “NO FOOD OR DRINK IN COMPUTER LAB”  “Do NOT rearrange tables and chairs” “Students with overdue books will NOT BE ALLOWED to check out new ones”.

The messages conflict.  You start with a positive message and then are confronted with negative ones.  Obviously, we sometimes have to have rules. But can you reframe them in a positive light?  “Please enjoy your food and drink in the cafe area. We don’t want sticky keyboards.” “Feel free to rearrange the tables and chairs, but please put them back like this diagram when done”  “Got overdue books? Feel free to select a book from our Little Free Library Cart”

See how much nicer those feel?  No one wants to feel yelled at when they haven’t even done anything wrong yet.

Action Step:  Look for signage in your space that presents a negative message.  Either get rid of the rule or find a way to reframe it in a positive light

Too Much Text, Not Enough Pictures

What is the text-to-picture ratio of your signage?  If it’s predominantly words, you could be disenfranchising certain students.  What about your English-language learners? Dyslexic students? Color-blind students?  Students who are on a low-reading level? Try to use minimal, simple text and add graphics that help explain what the sign is for when possible.  For makerspace storage, use just a picture of pencils to label the box that pencils go in, or include the word and the picture. For showing where your fantasy books are kept, include the word along with an image of a dragon.  Give your students visual clues to help them out.

Action Steps:  Analyze your signage for the ratio of visuals to text.  Alter signs as needed to add more images.

For more on the science-y side of decoration and signage, check out this article.

How do you make your signage student friendly?  What are some awful library/classroom signs you’ve seen?