January 28, 2023
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Q&A: Professor gives presentation on the psychology behind signs

Signs and symbols have been crucial components in our communication methods for centuries. However, as our methods of communication continue to evolve, and often quicken, people are investigating how images, icons and designs can most effectively communicate ideas to others.

Dennis Charsky, associate professor in the Department of Strategic Communication, recently gave a presentation to the Manufacturers Association of Central New York (MACNY) on the psychology behind signs. The presentation focused on how manufacturing companies could utilize signs most effectively to enforce beneficial behaviors in their employees, maximizing their learning and performance.

Opinion Editor Meredith Burke spoke with Charsky about the relevance of signs in the workplace, which strategies led to the most effective communication of ideas and Charsky’s decision to give the presentation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Meredith Burke: For our readers, could you give a brief overview of your presentation?

Dennis Charsky: I was giving a presentation at Ed Tech Day last year on infographics, and a woman who was there for Ed Tech Day saw me, and I was talking about the psychological principles of graphics and designs. She asked me if I could take that and then transition it to what would be appropriate in manufacturing settings. She, at the time, was a part of MACNY, so they invited me up for the talk, speaking with everybody from VPs of manufacturing companies all the way down to line employees. … We talked about signs, the importance of them, placement, design criteria, words, images, icons and the combination of all those things can have an impact on how you want people to behave in the workplace.

MB: What made you agree to give the talk?

DC: I like doing these things. It was a teaching opportunity for me. I got to network with people in the area. … I got to meet new people and get my research out there.

MB: Could you give an example of some of these signs and how they work?

DC: Some of the examples I gave were campaigns in various organizations to enable employees to turn the light off when they leave the bathroom. … That was a big campaign — the placement of the reminder sign — be it on the washroom mirror or by the light switch as they leave. … Did they have a picture of a light switch? Was there a finger there? Which design worked best and why? … The big one for manufacturing, I went through the typical campaigns to get people to lift appropriately. … Where you place them, where are the directions, what does it look like? All those design principles go into making a sign to get people to act in the way you want them to act, or perform a particular duty, or change their behavior to be something that’s more beneficial.

MB: Is there anything consistent in the different signs that successfully encourage these behaviors?

DC: Usually, you don’t need a photograph. Illustrations work just as well, and they’re usually cheaper to produce. … Humor doesn’t work. Really, what works is wording, as effectively as possible, what you want them to do and why…typical of a billboard. … Convince them within maybe 10 seconds they see the sign. Placement in close proximity to where you want them to perform the behavior is also important. So for the lifting campaign, putting the correct lifting procedure on the actual box itself. … It’s hard to determine, because … every workplace is different, every campaign is different. … But those are, by large, some of the things you can attempt to do to improve signs’ effectiveness.

MB: Is companies’ interest in the psychology behind signs newfound, or has this line of research been going on for a while now?

DC: It’s been a thing. … These studies have been going on for decades now. The newer ones, which I haven’t studied and haven’t looked into all that much, are the new digital signs that come with animation embedded. … So that has some tricky benefits that could potentially take advantage of, but it might also have some pitfalls as well.

MB: Do you plan to use your research from your presentation in your work at the college?

DC: Some of the design principles I already teach in some of our classes, so it was just a matter of extending them to signs in the workplace. … I learned some things by having to do the talk, and I might start building into future lectures and classes.

Meredith Burke can be reached at mburke@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @meredithsburke