Better Living Through Signage, Part I

Best-selling author Daniel H. Pink has published five books about “the changing world of work,” the best known of which is probably A Whole New Mind. But he also happens to be, in his own words, obsessed with signs. Pink is so obsessed with signs that the most populated category on his blog is about signage.

In a Pecha-kucha presentation on signage, Pink says,

Some signs are beautiful, and some are weird, but many of the signs we encounter in our day-to-day life have a flaw. If we make them better, the world could be a slightly better place.

Improving the world through signage? That is an idea I can totally get behind!

Pink proposes to make signs better by making them more emotionally intelligent. He defines emotionally intelligent signs as ones that

  • demonstrate empathy and/or
  • encourage empathy

roadsignCheck out some of the examples from his blog.

I was struck by his argument for a couple reasons. One, empathy seems to be having a “moment” in the museum blogosphere (The Empathetic Museum: A “Pop-Up” Conversation, Interpretive Empathy, The Empathetic Museum: Institutional Body Language, Empathic Design, On the paradoxes of empathy). Two, I had recently read Seth Godin’s blog post, “Millions of words and only six emotions.” (More about that later.)

Most of Pink’s signage examples are about getting people to behave appropriately, and with our collections and other exhibits to take care of, I know many of us often feel we could use some help with that. Museum 2.0 had a thought-provoking piece, “Wandering Down the ‘Don’t Touch’ Line,” about helping visitors know what they can and cannot do while creating a “generous atmosphere,” with lots of ideas from the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History and other museums. Pink’s blog is a great place to go for more inspiration about this type of signage.

But as a label writer and exhibit developer, I was provoked by the combination of Pink’s posts and Godin’s post to want to do more. I want to write emotionally intelligent interpretive labels. Godin writes,

The intellectual part of the human mind can spin delightful or frightening stories, can compare features and benefits, can create narratives that compel us to take action.

But all of these words are merely costumes for the six emotions built deep in our primordial soup:

anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise

Million of words to choose from when I write, but only six emotions my labels might provoke. I am pretty sure I have managed surprise a few times. I’m not sure about the others, but I wasn’t consciously trying for any of them.

In Part II of this post, I’ll try to share some examples of emotion- and/or empathy-provoking labels from a variety of museums. Are “emotion-provoking” and “empathy-provoking” labels the same thing? I’ve started to question that as I’ve been writing this post. I’d love to read your thoughts on that question, and to see your examples of emotion- and/or empathy-provoking signage.


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