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Most cities are covered in signs, but in the developing world, signs are limited.

It is not unusual when visiting a country to see limited directional or street signs.  As a result, it is necessary to navigate by using landmarks or asking locals.  Visitors can be equally lost in government offices. I visited a local court in Moldova that did not have signage, a check-in desk, or space for visitors.  Those with legal cases were forced to wander around hallways and knock on closed doors to determine their appointment location.  I started making a list of other places where I had seen similar situations, and as I typed, I realized that it was too many to mention here.

Without signage, unfortunate employees in the front offices become the default help- desk and have to repeatedly answer the same questions about where to go and what to do.  Is it any surprise that visitors and staff are less than polite at the end of the day?

Signage is an easy way to solve many issues:

  • Direction signage—shows people where to go for common services
  • Process signage—shows people the steps to take and what to do
  • Price signage—if there is a price list posted, the line moves faster, and people are less likely to feel cheated or think the cashier is corrupt
  • Waiting room/line waiting signage allows the government to reach the public with education goals while they wait

Waiting rooms and lines are underused blank spaces. They scream for educational or informational materials.  I have seen people who stared at eye level at memos from a file cabinet that were stapled to the wall while they waited. Boredom drives readership.

Research suggests that people with nothing to do perceive wait times to be longer than those distracted by reading materials, television, or conversation. Mirrors by the elevator, TV screens at the airport, magazines in the waiting room, little knick-knacks to peruse and buy in the supermarket checkout aisle, and smartphones all take people’s minds off of their frustration about being imprisoned in a line.”[1]

Airports have the most underused awareness-raising spaces.  Obscure customs orders or frightening health alerts (Lassa fever, yellow fever, Zika) are the most common signs. Much more could be done by opening up the wall space to government ministries with messages and design elements.

More practically, signage can serve a purpose. In places without funding for printing, the Tajikistan Tax Authority in Gazop put the tax law on the wall, so tax staff and citizens could reference the information themselves.  My team put up signs in Afghan, informing citizens that the computer was a shared resource and was not to be used for personal use.  Somehow, a laminated sign over a computer transformed it from a desk into an internet center.

[1] Washington Post  by Ana Swanson November 27, 2015