Government risks “confusion and apathy” by failing to standardise social distancing signs

Experts warn that hotchpotch pandemic signage is creating confusion – just as drivers suffer when there are inconsistent road signs.

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Wander down a high street in the pandemic era, and you’ll be bombarded with messages. From one-way systems on high streets designed to try and limit close-contact interactions to on-demand hand sanitiser dispensed from council-owned stations, we’re being told to “stay alert”.

And that’s before you even get to the panoply of signs stuck on floors, walls and windows screaming at you to maintain distance, wash hands and queue in an orderly fashion.

We are not so much being nudged as shoved aggressively into changing our habits. But the problem is – as with so much else around Covid-19 – it’s not coherent.

A look at this range of social distancing signs taken in Belfast shows the differences in signage from one shop to another, for example.

While some use stick figures to represent graphically that people should remain two metres apart at all times, others simply ask people to “Please adhere to social distancing”, or “Keep a safe distance”.

They use a range of different fonts at different sizes to get across their message. One sign, posted on the floor of a Lidl, contains 26 words of advice – the graphical equivalent of War and Peace – which amounts to: “Keep two metres or more apart”. Some don’t even use a single word.

The same range of designs and messages can be seen on the many, many websites selling coronavirus signage. The result is confusion (there’s even a mix-up in conversions, with some signs saying two metres is six feet, while one says it’s 6.5 feet). It’s all reminiscent of the era before the standardisation of UK road signs in 1965.

“The confusion from grassroots-organised signage isn’t new, and has happened throughout history,” explains Patrick Murphy, a Barnsley-based artist and designer, who has previously curated an exhibition on the 1965 redesign of road signs by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert, which still exist today. “I think what is a new phenomenon of the 21st century is the growing lack of well-considered ‘official’ or government-sponsored aesthetics in society.”

Kinneir and Calvert’s design work in the 1960s was crucial in changing attitudes to road safety. Subsequent research by the Road Safety Observatory has shown that too many signs can cause mental overload for drivers, and that there’s a negative correlation between the quality of roadside signs and markings (in terms of layout and condition) and the number of deaths and serious injuries on UK roads.

The concern is that a similar, pre-1965 approach to Covid-19 signage today could have a similar impact. (Calvert, now 84, did not respond to a request to comment on the social distancing signage, and Kinneir died in 1994.)

“Some of the signs are taken in different ways,” says Joan Harvey, senior lecturer in psychology at Newcastle University, who has looked at non-verbal signals, and researches consumer psychology. The differences add to the confusion, and make the message less effective.

Most of the signs, which were placed on the floor in and outside shops, use blue, yellow and black colour palettes.

The blue echoes the colour of the NHS – echoing the “Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives.” slogan developed by the government in the early days of the crisis, which was deemed too successful at dissuading people from venturing out of their homes. It reminds people of the risks of ignoring the guidance: a trip to a hospital, and the chance of not coming out again.

The yellow and black combination is very common: “It’s frequently used in signage to show it’s a dangerous thing to do,” says Harvey.

But others use different palettes, including pink and white, which don’t bring across the gravity of not following guidance.

In common with much of the UK response to coronavirus to date, the goals seem confused and the messaging muddled. “The government has this Nudge Unit, looking to nudge people into doing all these things,” says Harvey. “But they’re not nudging hard enough.”

When asked to comment on this story, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy pointed towards its guidance for employers, which simply advises them to use their own signage, stopping short of supplying templates or suggesting how it looks. Its one downloadable sign is to communicate to people that the business is Covid-19-compliant.

“Every business is different,” said a spokesperson. “But practical guidelines, including on signage, have been published to make workplaces as safe as possible and give people confidence to go back to work.”

The Behavioural Insights Team, the social purpose firm spun out in 2014 from the government’s Nudge Unit and part-owned by the Cabinet Office, worked on testing to get the most effective design for the first handwashing posters in response to Covid-19 earlier this year. Yet it hasn’t gone on to advise the government on the design or colour of social distancing signage. The Behavioural Insights Team would not comment on why not, and the Cabinet Office did not respond to a query about this at the time of writing.

Late last month, the Behavioural Insights Team published analysis of research showing that the public has become laxer in following strict social distancing guidance.

Murphy goes further than Harvey, calling the lack of a centralised design for such vitally important signage emblematic of “a growing appetite for the quick fix, suck it and see” approach.

“This creates confusion and apathy in an already beleaguered public,” he says. The worry is that confusion and apathy are prime breeding grounds for a second wave of the deadly disease – with potentially catastrophic consequences.

Chris Stokel-Walker is the author of YouTubers and writes regularly for Wired, the New York Times and Newsweek.

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