Updating Our Visual Traffic Language

by Drew Skau 10 months ago Filed Under: Design

Traffic signs are among the most frequent forms of visual information display. On top of that, they provide extremely valuable information: an incorrect sign could mean serious injury or death. They have to work perfectly in all weather and lighting conditions, and they need to be consistent, so we all know what to expect.

There are some great conventions that make traffic signs and signals work well, and changing these could be confusing — but with the advent of new technologies, people are considering new features. Here are some of those new projects, and a bit about what they get wrong and what they get right.

The traffic light is an old technology, first introduced in London in 1868. It was manually controlled and lit with a gas-powered flame.

The standard three-light signal that is most common today is a good system. Each light is separate, so color blindness is not an issue. Critical information about an upcoming signal change from Go to Stop is displayed using the yellow light, and often the red signal is larger to help with visibility and make sure everyone stops. There are conventions about orientation and order of the signals, so that the colors are not the only thing communicating meaning. These double encodings (position, color, and sometimes size) are critical. With 8% of males with Northern European ancestry having some form of color vision deficiency, encodings on color alone would be disastrous.

One of the more recent re-thinkings of the traffic light (by Thanva Tivawong) uses a digital display with three color LEDs to show an hourglass. Unfortunately, this display is almost useless for the colorblind population, as it becomes very difficult to tell what stage the light is at.

The idea of a timer on red lights is nice, but it may lead to people anticipating the signal change and entering the intersection before it is clear. Also, in this implementation it is impossible to know if the timer is counting down to go or to stop.

One new design that might actually bring something of value to the traffic light is the UNISignal. The design by Ji-youn Kim uses a triangle for the red light, helping to indicate caution, and providing yet another visual encoding of the signal to stop.

Street signs are another part of our visual traffic language. Their orientation indicates street direction, while the text labels the street. This is a great system, but it is predetermined and cannot adapt to the needs of whoever is there. This can lead to overcrowded sign posts with confusion and long pause times for reading.

Using digital technology may not entirely alleviate these problems, but it may help shift them into different problems that are solvable. Breakfast‘s most recent product, Points, is a digital sign that can display a location name, weather, and the direction the location is in.

The sign can serve as direction pointing advertising for local businesses, nearby trending events from Twitter, or the location of wherever you are currently headed, to help you find your way.

While it probably isn’t appropriate for motorized traffic, it seems like a great option for pedestrians and cyclists who have the capability to easily stop and interact with their surroundings.

Points will be ready for rental at the beginning of July, so if you’ve got some unknown areas to point people to, check them out.

Technology is changing rapidly, and it is only natural that people explore how it can improve our current systems. It is important, however, that these explorers keep in mind all of the affordances, conventions and functions of our current visual traffic language.

Drew Skau is Visualization Architect at Visual.ly and a PhD Computer Science Visualization student at UNCC with an undergraduate degree in Architecture. You can follow him on twitter @SeeingStructure