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Signs of Weakness

Exit signage must meet at least the minimum standards for use, found (as one prominent example) in the National Fire Protection Association’s Life Safety Code (NFPA). This section also develops rules for the installation of exit signs (section 5-1, “Marking of Means of Egress”). As history has shown, the rules are always changing. It’s as though fire, and obviously terrorists, are always looking for signs of weakness.

Many of the last centuries exit sign standards came about because of the catastrophic Triangle Fire. The fire struck on March 25, 1911. Of the five hundred workers in the nine-story building (a high rise in those times), almost one third died.

The news caused an immediate investigation, as stories of women, trapped behind locked doors, with inadequate safeguards, had suffocated and (in several instances) leapt to their deaths. Many of the women were no more than children. The rage of the fire was intense, and estimates placed the carnage as lasting no more than fifteen minutes.

Though technology was not the harbinger of change, there were commissions established to investigate safety standards. Because so many of the workers had limited English skills, the first efforts to create ‘universal language’ signs had their footholds in the ashes of the Triangle Fire.

But problems with inadequately protected, designated, or maintained exits remain, to this day, a major factor in deaths.

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Mind the Signs

Exit signs can be interesting plot devices, in the theater of life. On a freeway, there are generally eight shapes and sizes and exit signs. And exit signs are generally always going to be on the right-hand side of the designed exit, whether in a building or alongside a road. These rules suggest the certain ways the human mind functions, where ‘right’ predominates, and the rules of the right-handed tend to be followed in most countries around the world.

In real life, many of the signs we see are actually functions of how the mind works, regardless of better processes. An effective exit sign design now has to meet standard coding, so that people can literally be taught what to see, albeit subliminally. For example, some studies have suggested that people do subconsciously see the ubiquitous exit signs in (as an example) their own high-rise buildings, even as they cannot specifically state where it is, on a conscious level. “Design psychology” has emerged since the 1980’s as an essential part of modern life, extending its function even as people become increasingly unaware of its wide reach.

Culture, of course, can also rewire what people expect. In England, for example, one sign suggests the way to leave is ‘Way Out.’ In America, this sign would be more suggestive of the counter-culture from the 60’s.

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Speaking Freely

One of the earliest, wise uses of exit signs was in the arena of indoor movie theaters. For that matter, a Supreme Court justice has even contributed to the lore that surrounds safe exiting from a movie theater. As hard as it is to believe, people once caught a fad of yelling “fire” in a theater. Justice Oliver W. Holmes noted the limit on free speech in 1919–of all things, using the urgency of a supposed theater fire. “It is not allowed to falsely yell fire in a crowned movie theater.”

Like most good advice, there has been a wide misquoting of Justice Holmes. The key word is falsely. One corporate theater chain actually runs an on-screen request to viewers: “please take a moment to familiarize yourself with…exits… .”

As progress in building codes have made theaters safer, an increased use of emergency lighting has also made exit signs more reliable. But the importance of the theater exit sign is also coming home: literally. Many of the more imaginative “home theater” buffs are also buying and installing those classic EXIT signs for home…presumably using the sign in the right place. Hopefully there won’t be a lawsuit over someone being misdirected into a closet. There’s no doubt Justice Holmes would be shaking his head about any such false direction. Besides, Holmes’s opinion was eventually overturned.

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