Julia Turner has an interesting series up over at Slate about signs — their history, and the logic behind their designs. The fifth article in the six-part feature is all about exit signs, specifically why no other country uses a design even remotely like ours. We here in the United States are so accustomed to seeing the bright red-lettered exit sign over auditorium doors and such that it hardly even occurs to us that there might be a better way. Actually, according to the Turner article, the rest of the world thinks our good old American exit sign is fucking nuts.
Yep, that one.
Apparently, polyglotic Europe takes a dim view of text on signage. They prefer pictograms on the Continent, and thus adopted the ISO-standard running-man sign pictured below-right in 1985. But there is more than the European pics-over-words preference that drives their disapproval of our exit sign. They also think our color selection skills need work. Why, they wonder, does the U.S. utilize an exit sign lettered in red, the color that internationally symbolizes stop?
Good point. Presumably we (or at least those of us outside the tea party movement) have no desire to see our non-English-speaking visitors perish in fires because they think the exit signs are telling them to stay put. And there is no reason for we Americans to be disparaging of pictograms. Hell, the legendary Will Eisner, greatest comic book artist of them all, designed a series of pictogrammatic instructions to teach soldiers how to operate equipment while he was in the army during World War II, some of which are apparently still in use today. We are capable of embracing the wordless exit sign. We just have this chip on our shoulder about adopting something that was invented by someone else.
So I went ahead and designed my own wordless exit sign. It is admittedly somewhat inspired by the ISO-standard sign. It is also undeniably inferior to that sign. But it does have the advantage of being 100% American, baby! Check it out:
Obviously, there is some room for misinterpretation here. You might read the sign as meaning “Hey, check it out! There’s a door over there!” instead of “This way to safety!” With that in mind, and considering the rich comic book-based history of American pictograms, I came up with this alternate version: