Monday, February 26, 2007

Sign Day

After many years of loyal service, the ubiquitous Radiation Warning Sign (seen on everything from Doc Brown's stolen Plutonium to the small print on Hot Pockets sleeves) has been updated. Five years of focus groups in eleven different countries led the International Atomic Energy Agency to the underwhelming design shown below. Of particular note was their preschooler focus group that said yellow was for caution and red was for dead .

Apparently, people thought the original sign just meant "radiation is here", much like the "George Washington slept here" signs that dot the Virginia landscape. Scientists really felt that they needed a more intimidating sign so people would take the tooth-losing, gonad-shriveling effects of radioactivity seriously. However, the problem with making signs more complex is that they are also more likely to be misinterpreted or confusing. For a native stumbling upon an illicit nuclear power plant erected in an unregulated third-world country, it is not necessarily apparent which of the following is the actual message of the sign:

  1. Radiation will kill you, so run away as fast as you can.
  2. Thibi, the Red Jack-o-Lantern God, decrees that death is inevitable so don't try and run away.
  3. Radiation will remove all the skin from your head.
  4. Radiation will impregnate you if you are a pirate.

(Obviously, #4 is the intended message of the IAEA).

The more general problem here is that you cannot trust focus groups and the public to offer good feedback on design issues, as seen from last month's public contest for a warning sign for nanotechnology labs . Here are some of the entries that will definitely be among the finalists, if only becauses they are so obviously related to nanotechnology:


Warning! Sesame Street airing soon

Watch for X-treme Croquet Players

Warning! Spirograph users out of control

Beware Volkswagen Mechanics

Jewish Travel Agency

Warning! Very Small Baseballs

Elderly Nanoparticle X-ing

Keep Hands Away from Ray Gun

Not All Puzzle Pieces Will Be Used

BLAME THE COOTIE CATCHER

Warning! Chicken Wire Not an Effective Bong Material

Warning! Very Small Genitalia

Warning! Fat People in Greenland, Peru, and New Zealand are Breaking the Earth

Watch for Falling Triforce

Short People Are More Dangerous Than They Appear

Beware of, you know, things. And stuff.

Happy Birthday Dad and Jim Barry!

Jim Gaffigan on Hot Pockets
Man mistakes porn DVD as cries for help
George Takei responds to Tim Hardaway

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