This blog shares some of our thoughts about plain language, and the latest discussions about plain English and clear design in New Zealand, and around the world.

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08 April 2011

Signing the way

If you want to know why it is vital to signpost the text that follows a heading, you need look no further than the simple, yet effective, traffic sign.

In traffic, you may have only a short time to look at a sign, know what it means, what is to follow, and how you need to comply.

Most signs you see on New Zealand roads today use internationally known shapes (such as circles, diamonds, and rectangles) and symbols (such as silhouettes that show pedestrian crossing, road narrows, slippery surface, and roadworks). Having easy-to-follow and easily recognisable signs is important for domestic and international travellers.

New Zealand road signs fall into three broad categories: compulsory, warning, and information. Compulsory signs tell you what you can and cannot do, and usually are in red or blue. Warning signs alert you to a specific hazard ahead, are usually diamond-shaped, and coloured yellow and black (permanent hazard) and orange and black (temporary hazard). Information signs that give you useful facts are rectangular and come in varying colours and sizes.

A blog I read says Transit Lanes ‘are the lanes that have signs up informing you of the correct usage of the lanes that are written so small and with so much information on the sign that you give up reading it after you nearly crash trying’.

I beg to differ. The ‘Transit Lane’ sign is one example of an effective sign.

Without the sign’s visual cues, they might have got a longer sign that read: ‘Transit Lane starts. You must be a passenger vehicle, with two or more people to use this Transit Lane. You can use this lane as a Transit Lane between 6am and 10am from Monday to Friday’.

Then they really would have missed the message as they tootled along. Even if stuck in traffic.

Instead, the sign has a title, the wording ‘T2’, the days and time of day you need to heed the sign, and the graphic of two people in a car.
All this vital information on a sign of restricted size that allows for only minimal text. The colours, silhouette, and sign shape give us instant clues to the rest of the sign’s message and its meaning. They capture our attention quickly and effectively.

The only information not explicit on the sign is the other types of vehicle, such as passenger service vehicle, cycle, and motorcycle, that may also use the Transit Lane.

On the communications highway, we must always be aware of the various ways people absorb vital information, and how much time they have to understand it. Otherwise we just might find ourselves facing a very real and dangerous misunderstanding.

So steer your eyes to the signs section of your Official Road Code and see what you might have missed. The ‘About signs’ section of the New Zealand Road Code is at

1 comment:

  1. Well, *that* Transit Lane sign is a good example, but I'm sure the signs up the Kapiti Coast have more words than that. If they have replaced them then I'll be the first to applaud, as I could never absorb all the writing and watch the road at the same time!