The Inside Story of Sign Design

Slate continues its series on wayfinding with the little-known story of the symbolic conflicts among the U.S., the former Soviet Union and Japan over how to direct people in a time of crisis.
March 10, 2010, 7am PST | Cathy Duchamp
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Why does the United States insist on using a word (E-X-I-T) instead of the "running man" pictogram to mark emergency egress?'s Julia Turner brings us the history and politics of exit signs that will make you pause the next time you're faced with an unfamiliar directional sign.

Turner explains the text-based American exit sign has its origins in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, a blaze in New York City garment factory that killed 146 workers. But almost a century later, the National Fire Protection Association has no plans to change its signs to the globally accepted "running man" pictogram. That symbol has its own controversial past, which pitted Japan against the Soviets.

Turner acknowledges her own bias: "Although the case for the universal symbol has a certain logic, I find myself resisting it on some gut level. Ota's running man is elegant and efficient, but a bit quiet compared with the blaring red cubes I'm used to. Encountering it in London last month, I found it retiring and shy. In a fire, wouldn't we want signs to shout at us a bit?"

Maybe the 'training wheel' approach is best: running man + e-x-i-t, a combo that is now showing up all over New York.

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Published on Sunday, March 7, 2010 in Slate
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