The Psychology of Road Signs

33Driving is an activity that always has a risk involved, as you’re mind is bombarded with information and visual cues whilst operating a big piece of machinery. This is why methods of getting the message across quickly and effectively are always preferred, especially when it comes to road signs.

It’s easy to take for granted the road signs you see everyday on the way to work or driving the kids to school. Though as simple as they seem, a significant amount of thought in regards to psychology and how we perceive signs have gone on behind the scenes for the making of these signs. All aspects of the sign, from shapes, colours and symbols, have been specifically chosen and designed so that motorists receive the right information in the right way.

In the late 1950s the US developed a typeface for road signs called Highway Gothic, which is what Australia uses in its road signs today (different to the UK who use the ‘Transport’ typeface). It was found that because of the style of writing we read on a daily basis, the combination of both upper and lower case was the most effective in helping the brain recognise words.

In a driving situation, glancing at a word does not mean you are actually taking in every letter – your brain is recognising the general shape of the word and linking it to an associated thought, idea or action. The brain can utilise this process much faster with lower case.

These words, teamed with carefully chosen colours and shapes, help make these associations be effective. Human brains have evolved to see colours and instantly have a certain reaction or emotion incited. This happens because our brains are highly sensitive to the energy levels of the light that passes through your eyes, with different colours of light carrying different amounts of energy.

When it comes to Australian road signs, yellow is used to communicate happiness, cheerfulness, friendliness and is used for road construction safety signs to help keep frustrated drivers in a good mood. Australian highway signs and freeway signs are green as the colour suggests harmony, balance and a state of calm; in an area where high travel speeds and angry peak hour drivers are in high concentration, a colour like green can help decrease stress and aggression that could cause serious accidents.

Along with typeface and colours, carefully chosen shapes also trigger psychological reactions in the brain. Safety and hazard signs are triangular because the brain associates the sharp points with danger while road information signs are rectangular as this is the same shape as a book, something most people associate as a source of information. Instruction signs are round to look like the end of a pointing finger giving an instruction.

You can see this psychology in action on the range of road signs produced by Artcraft, an Australian owned and operated road sign company.

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