Hold that elevator! | The intuitiveness of symbols

By Brian Donohue | 19 Comments

There is a lingering piece of poor design that somehow sneaks its way into nearly every multi-story building around. I can almost guarantee you have suffered, however quietly, at the hands of one of the most confusing symbols around – the opposing pair of close / open door buttons in elevators.


It’s a design that’s so annoying it even made its way into Anne Enright’s  collection of short stories, “Taking Pictures”. She writes about an awkward conversation with a stranger about her pregnant belly, and she’s trying to speed up the elevator trip to end the conversation:

I turned and jabbed the ‘doors close’ button. At least I thought it was the ‘doors close’ button, it was actually the doors open button — there is something so confusing about those little triangles — so the doors were at that exact moment, closing, caught themselves — Oops! — and slid open again.’

Unlike the character in Enright’s story, we’re not usually trying to close the elevator doors; we’re trying to open them. Perhaps for someone who has made eye contact with us and is lunging for the door, and we’re madly trying to decipher the cryptic symbols in time, worried that they’ll think we’ve intentionally ignored their cry for a bit of human decency.

But, hey, how cryptic are they?

This is what’s most interesting thing about these symbols — they’re really not that cryptic at all. If I put a piece of paper down in front of 20 random people yanked off Grafton Street, I bet every single one of them would get the symbols right. And they’d laugh at me for asking such a stupid question.

And pretty much every elevator uses a small variation of the same theme — which you think would make this whole thing a lot easier for us common folks. Here’s another one:


And yet one more. Though this time, there doesn’t actually seem to be an “Open doors” button. I’m still trying to figure out what that middle button is — maybe open the doors really, really far?


It’s all about context

So here’s the thing — in the case of these elevator buttons, it’s all about context. Sure, if I give you a second or two, you’ll have no problem choosing the right button. But when we want to hit the Open Door button, we’re under severe pressure to not look like an inconsiderate ass. And that pressure translates those symbols into, well, in the words of Colman, hieroglyphics.

So what to do about the hieroglyphics, then?

Option 1: get rid of the Close Door button altogether. Then there’s nothing to confuse the button with, right? Well, the photo above shows how even that doesn’t necessarily remove confusion. And as Etre pointed out in their April 2009 newsletter (oddly not available online), people like Close Door buttons:

The “close door” buttons found in most lifts/elevators are disabled for the same purpose. The elevator companies include them to give riders the sense that they can get things to move along faster.

Option 2: Get a good visual designer to make those icons cleaner, to really emphasise the contrast. No doubt this is doable, but gradually that useful design would be tweaked and morphed in elevators around the world until we’re back to the same place we’re at today.

Option 3: Use words. You know, like:


I’d bet this simple use of English would save a lot of our asses.


19 responses to “Hold that elevator! | The intuitiveness of symbols

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more. Those little triangles are to hard to decipher within the timeframe given. I generally end up hitting both of them, which, if as you mention the close door button is disabled, means that I do manage to open them, sometimes.

  2. You’ve clearly demonstrated that in this context, metaphor is the wrong choice. In that split second – those nice short words ‘open’ and ‘close’ are much better.

  3. In this day and age of computer technology, I can’t believe that a simple 50-cent processor can’t be employed here: How about a simple “Door” button? If the door is open and holding, it starts the door closing. If the door is closing, it stops and opens the door. Simple, no fuss – “this button makes the door do the opposite of what it’s doing now”.

  4. Although I do think using actual words would improve comprehension, I think part of the issue is that the open and close buttons are usually located right next to each other, and in the lack of time that changing door movements must occur, it’s easy to hit the wrong button. It’s a shame there’s no metric on whether one is used more often than the other, and could thus be made bigger to make it more obvious. All things considered, Open is probably more critical than Close for fast recognition, which should make it reasonable to pick it for enlarging.

  5. Hey Brian,

    Nice post. Taking online’s design decisions out into the real world always makes for an entertaining read.

    But in this instance, I’m not sure I agree with you. Here’s why:

    By adding words to an instruction, you immediately restrict it’s use to people who understand that language.

    You could argue though, that English is the most common language in Ireland and therefore you wouldn’t upset too many people in Irish lifts. But that’s not relevant here, what’s relevant is where the lift was constructed, not where it ended up.

    By using symbols to describe the uses of the different buttons, the designers have made an interface that’s language independent. It can be used anywhere, and I’m sure it reduced the cost of manufacturing it too.

    You’ve got some valid points here, but I think designing icons and buttons that are language independent is a very important factor and shouldn’t be ignored. Especially when you consider the economies of scale and the increased market size you get when designing with this in mind.

  6. @Iarfhlaith. That’s the point though I think. This is a great example where icons fall short.

    @jim. You make a good point. Open is the critical function. Close is conventionally automatic anyway (on floor selection) so is it even needed?

  7. @ritchielee Maybe these ones are confusing, but I don’t think that means we should give up on symbols completely.

    Historically, some people, particularly those with some form of dyslexia have always found it difficult to differentiate between a ‘greater than’ and a ‘less than’ sign. I’ll agree that it’s a potentially confusing icon, but I don’t think that replacing it with an English word is as easy a fix as this post is suggesting.

  8. Thanks for the comments guys.

    @larfhlaith. I agree. Having language independent labels is definitely preferable. Using words raises all sorts of localisation issues, both from the point of view of the manufacturer, and for users as well.

    You could argue that Open and Close might attain the status of a Stop sign, where the English word is used in loads of non-English speaking countries. But that might be a long shot.

    But my guess is that even if an icon was designed that solved this problem (and surely it exists somewhere), you would end up having variants of it to fit the various sizes, shapes, textures, and lighting requirements of buttons in different elevators, and these variants would end up restoring the unusable state of the icon.

    Maybe basic words are actually easier to localise than refitting icon designs.

    @ jim. I think if you got rid of the Close button you’d be annoying a lot of people who look for it. (Though according to Etre it’s really a placebo button that does nothing.) But it would seem to solve the problem. If you remove the strange button in the third image above, then that does seem to eliminate the confusion. Maybe this is the easiest-to-implement fix.

  9. For purposes of universal design, the alarm button is nice and low but which can have embarrasing consequences for those with fidgety kids. Perhaps a press and hold for 2 seconds could sort that out?

  10. I’ve certainly used a lift (sorry, an elevator) where the close button was not a placebo, but that one the doors took so long to close by themselves that it the difference was very noticeable.

    Interestingly, I pretty much never use the open doors button, instead just sticking my arm out the door to catch the sensors, so the door will open again. Simple, intuitive (as it’s very much like holding a normal door), and it works.

  11. The primary problem here is not iconography – it’s societal.

    The problem is the social pressure induced by trying to help others get into the lift. What if we simply removed the functionality? No buttons = no social expectation.

    We all need to get better at removing functionality that is no longer valuable enough for inclusion :)

  12. I’d like to see words and symbols used together, in lifts.
    - Some people would recognise the word before the symbol, particularly if they’re good at reading.
    - Some people would recognise the symbol before the word, particularly if they’re not good at reading.
    The symbols and words together would add to the visual difference between the buttons.

  13. Great example, @ritchielee. I actually thought words and symbols together would overcomplicate it — but that example shows how they can work. Still, I’d guess that most people would ignore the symbols and just pay attention to the text, but perhaps the this double-solution solves the localisation/language issue.

  14. Personally I don’t recall ever having a problem with the buttons, or being on the receiving end of anyone who did. Sounds like a case of mountains and molehills to me.

    FWIW, words alone (Option 3) are a fairly obvious non-starter in elevators. Many of the world’s elevators, e.g. in hotels, airports etc. are used by people who don’t speak the local language. Which is precisely why the almost-universally-standard iconography has developed in the first place.

  15. One problem with the existing sysmbols is that the only difference between them is the direction of the arrows:
    If the Open symbol was changed to put the arrows between a pair of vertical lines (symbolizing an opening), it would be very helpful in making them more readily distinguishable from each other. For example:
    || >|<

  16. For some reason (perhaps html coding) the proposed Open symbol did not post properly. I’ll try again with extra spaces:
    | |

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