Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Isn't it semiotic, don't you think?

Semiotics deals with using signs and symbols for communicating. Signs and symbols are a big part of our lives. Even young children that are barely toilet trained know the symbols that represent the boys' and girls' bathrooms.

Why is it, then, that intelligent people who even teach many of these principles in courses dealing with UI design and similar topics still need additional textual clues even though there is a perfectly good symbol staring them in the face? My anecdotal evidence is the Computer Science department. My apologies for the poor quality of the following picture taken on my phone, but it gets the point across:

Look at the picture with me. Generally the copy button on a copy machine button is green, at least according to my limited color skills, but it also will have a symbol on it. It is a diamond with a line in it. I don't know why it is that. It just is. Perhaps it is a mutation of the 0 with a 1 in it that is the pervasive symbol for the power button, but regardless of its origin, you recognize it when you see it in the right context at least.

In this case, there are two buttons, neither of which are green, unless it is some mutated, chromatically deficient green, in which case I apologize to my offended readership, but you should know not to be taking color advice from me to begin with. Regardless of the color of the buttons, they have the copy symbol on both of them. But why two buttons? Well, let's see, what are those other little dots? One has a black dot and a not-filled-in dot, whereas the other has four dots of various colors. What on earth could that mean? Well, luckily for us, we don't have to try to guess what the lower button means, since someone has sloppily taped a poorly created sign that proclaims to all that it is for making black & white copies. I had to find a user manual online to confirm this, but my suspicion was correct that the top button is for color copies. Whew. Mystery solved. And thank you to whoever labeled the button and saved everyone that uses that copier the 10 seconds it might have taken them to figure out why there are two buttons.

The next mystery is the recently reorganized parking system on campus. It used to be that parking lots were all labeled obscure combinations of numbers and letters: A2, A4, B, C3, R2, etc. From what I could surmise, A referred to faculty lots that occasionally staff could get a spot in if they were married to influential faculty or administrators, B was for students, C was for lots that nobody wants to park in, but all the close spots are taken, and R is for students who live in campus residence halls. The numbers are there just to throw you off. Since that system was too confusing, the parking lots now go by colors. Not just any colors, but blue, yellow, gray, gold, brown, purple, red, teal, black, green, and orange. If you have an orange parking permit, you can park in any orange, yellow, or green lots. If you have a yellow permit, you can only park in yellow lots. As you can see below, they were kind enough to not only make the sign in the appropriate color, but also spell out the color so I'll know what it is. I actually appreciate that a lot. All too often people set up systems that require users to be able to tell the difference between colors that, for some people including myself, look exactly the same.

I don't know what color the motorcyle signs are, though, since instead of saying the color, they have the word motorcycle, just in case the really skinny parking stalls next to the sign didn't give it away already. I don't want to even try to figure out the fine print on the sign below, where it says you can't park there from midnight through 6 a.m. November through April, even though it's a residence hall parking lot.

It is nice to see the old, confusing system of meaningless letters and numbers go away and a new, confusing system of meaningless colors and numbers replace it. It gives me hope that I will have job security as I continue my career in academia. I wonder how many committee hours were spent deciding what colors each lot would be graced with.

Not all signs based on colors are bad. The trees down at the end of our street always provide one of the first signs that Fall is around the corner, as they are among the first trees to start changing colors in the valley and provide a reminder to head up into the canyons to see the leaves changing there before they all fall off and blow into my yard.


Sterling said...

I won't even ask what the red button with the circle around the triangle is.

robmba said...

Good, because I have no idea.