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.