The sign in the elevator catches my eye almost immediately.
This hotel and I are already off to a bad start, as they have just checked me into a room that is already occupied, and after a long day of travel it has taken me two trips to the reception desk to finally land me in a room for the night.
But the sign in the elevator intrigues and amuses me, both as a guest and as a communications professional. I have now written hundreds of signs and documents for public consumption, and this one is quite unlike any I have ever authored.
“Dear Valued Guest,” it begins, innocently enough. It’s when it continues that things begin to get a bit odd: “As this elevator comes to a stop you will feel a jolt as it aligns with your chosen floor. Please don’t be alarmed, the elevator is safe and inspected on a regular basis. This style of elevator has a braking system that is solid and secure but not hydraulic, the new technology that you may be used to. We exceed all provincial and federal guidelines for elevator maintenance. Your safety is a top priority for our hotel. Thank you, the Management.”
I read it 3 or 4 times. I stay on the elevator past my floor to read it again, in fact, and I take a photo of it with my phone so I can recall the wording. It is undoubtedly well written, but it is quite the sign and it raises a lot of interesting questions in my mind.
It’s on my third trip past the front desk that I decide to ask a couple of those questions. After the already-occupied-room-check-in debacle, I know the staff have likely already pegged me as a guest who comes with problems, even if they aren’t of my own making. The nice young man behind the desk seems unprepared for the elevator conversation, though.
“So about that sign on your elevator,” I begin.
He eyes me warily. I can tell he’s talked about the elevator before, and it’s not a favourite topic.
“Instead of putting up a sign,” I continue, “Why not replace the elevator?”
His eyes widen a bit in surprise at this. He expected me to debate the safety aspect, I think, or demand to see their inspection records. This is not what he thought was coming.
“Well, that would be really expensive,” he says finally. “And the elevator is perfectly safe!”
He delivers the second line triumphantly, well rehearsed from previous discussions I suspect.
“Whether or not it’s safe is actually beside the point,” I say. “People think it might not be, and enough of them that you have had to put up a very long sign to tell them it is safe. And do you still get questions on the elevator?” I ask.
He nods, reluctantly. He doesn’t like this conversation and wishes I would leave his desk, I think.
“So is the sign actually doing anything?” I ask.
He stares at me and I smile and let him off the hook. I tell him to have a great day and I walk away, thinking not about elevators and safety, but about signs.
Signs, signs, everywhere a sign – and signs can be very good things. They tell us how to get places. They tell us things we can – and cannot – do. And signs keep us safe and secure and informed, but there is one thing signs cannot do: fix problems.
You see, when you encounter a problem it is very easy to say: “Hey, I know how to fix this! Let’s put up a sign!”, and there you go, problem solved.
Except the problem isn’t solved – all you have done is put up a sign. The problem still exists, and will continue to exist.
The elevator problem is a tough one. Elevators are expensive to replace, but the hotel with the sign does a brisk business with tourists and is part of an international chain, so the budget argument doesn’t really resonate with me as a reasonable excuse to avoid it. And yes, it would be inconvenient, but the hotel has down times when guests are sparse and it would be good timing to schedule the work. And yes, the elevator might be perfectly fine, but if the only thing guests remember about your hotel is a) the elevator that bounces you like a carnival ride and b) the sign that tries to convince you this carnival ride is perfectly safe, you have a problem that no sign is going to fix.
After spending a few years working in public communications I began to realize how quickly we resort to the “signage fix” as opposed to addressing the actual problem. And when you suggest that instead of erecting a sign the problem be fixed instead, people can become a bit stubborn, because signs are easy and problem solving can be hard – or expensive, or time consuming, or inconvenient. And I began to realize we do it even in our personal lives, as it is so much easier to “put up a sign” in our heads that warns “well, you know I have Problem X” instead of working to solve Problem X so we don’t need that sign in our heads that actually provides us with some mental security but does nothing to address Problem X.
The hotel I stayed in had a problem with an elevator.It took some time and thought to craft the sign, and they decided this would be their solution. They now have a problem elevator and a sign that says a great deal about their philosophy on problems: don’t fix them, sign them. This message rings loud and clear, and is the very unintentional result of a well-intended sign.
Before any sign is ever erected, the very first question that should be asked is this: If this sign is about a problem, should we be solving the problem instead?
In a world already littered with signs, more attempts at problem solving – and fewer attempts at sign crafting – would go a long way to avoiding signage overload.
And we might even actually solve a few problems along the way, too – and change the way we think about signs.