The contemporary world we live in gives rise to an abundance of typographic and graphic signs in our visual landscape. However, this proliferation becomes a muddle that often makes it difficult for us to distinguish the importance of one sign from another. A poorly designed sign with an important message might get overlooked as another attractive but less substantial sign gets noticed. The issue at hand is not just how to make a substantial sign stand out, but how to clarify its message as well as make an impact on the viewer.
One sign in need of redesign sits on the light switch plate in each room in Jester, an on-campus residence hall at UT Austin. Measuring at about three inches wide and two inches tall, this small sticker boldly states “HELP CONSERVE ENERGY, Please…TURN OFF LIGHTS.” The heading is entirely in red capital letters in Impact typeface, while the instructional text consists of white capital letters in a Helvetica typeface. A small illustration of a pointing finger turning off a light adds to the complexity of the sign. While these design decisions were most likely made to draw attention, the sticker ends up looking more obnoxious than engaging. The use of bright red and stark white results in a contrast that hurts the eyes. This color combination also references public signs that generally have a negative and restrictive connotation, like generic Stop or Do Not Enter signs. Furthermore, the overbearing feeling brought on by the bold Impact type, as well as the use of capital letters in general, is inconsistent with the idea of modest conservation. Rather than reading as a reminder, the message is now reading as a shout, which certainly does not bring the reader to any respectful attention.
a comparison between the color schemes
All these issues with the design take away from the essential reason for the sign’s existence. Looking at the purpose of the sign, the context in which it was created, and the location where it is found gives a new importance to its redesign. The president of the university is essentially the initiator of the energy conservation project that was created due to the increased prices and scarcity of natural gas in our world. Its purpose is to have the students in the dorms help the effort to reduce both the environmental and financial cost of energy use. The importance of conserving energy on campus cannot be emphasized enough to students, who for the most part do not consider the negative consequences that are directly related back to them. An announcement on the university’s website state that tuition costs are expected to increase by up to $150 each semester for the upcoming 2008-2009 school year. These tuition increases are projected to total around $13.6 million dollars, most of which will go to maintaining energy costs. The 2008 College Sustainability Report Card created by the Endowment Institute mentions that several conservation efforts have been and are currently being made. These endeavors include replacing 3,200 incandescent light bulbs with florescent bulbs and switching appliances and fixtures to EnergyStar products. Turning off the lights in one room when unoccupied is a simple gesture that takes little to no effort to do. However, according to an estimate by Scottish Gas, that action alone could save up to $85 a year, which could add up to millions altogether. Thus, to improve the current signs with attention-grabbing and action-inducing signs could make a significant impact on both the student body and the environment.
In order for the sign to be changed for the better, the first adjustment should be to replace the unnatural red and white colors with a calmer color scheme. More muted and natural colors relate better to the meaning of the message. The size of the sticker should also interact and engage with the space it resides, which in this case is the light switch power outlet plate. Rather than only covering one third of the plate, the sticker should cover more, if not the entire plate. While doing so, an integration of the fixed components of the switch and outlet with the typography would nicely tie the elements together. Typographic choices should not be the heavy Impact or the neutral Helvetica, but it should be something more hip (to appeal to college students) and playful (to act as a friendly reminder). One suitable typeface that comes to mind is Futura. It is a clean looking type with unwavering line thickness, round forms, and a little more character than Helvetica. The text should be in lowercase letters to avoid the disconcerting and unnecessary shouting result of the original capital letters. After an actual attempt to reconstruct this sign for a class assignment, a few challenges prevented me from resolving the design. The most difficult aspect was the integration of the sign with the space it occupies. The two large gaps needed for the outlet and switch took up the majority of the space, leaving an oddly shaped and incredibly reduced area to work with. Questions of whether or not to include a graphic element and how to attract without being obnoxious also posed as obstacles.
my unsuccessful attempts at redesigning
The difficulties I realized in attempting to recreate the sticker similarly relates to the difficulties of trying to make an impact on the student body for energy conservation at UT. The more ineffective the sign, the less likely the sign will be able to successfully engage students in the delivery of the message. With further exploration into this design dilemma, the end result should attract the attention of the viewer without distracting from the essential message. With good design, this little sticker could eventually be a significant agent in reducing costs not only to the university, but also to the student body and to the environment.