David Turner, a programmer-turned-game developer, created an interesting online game. The game describes a series of scenarios. For each, it asks the user to determine if the park rule has been broken.
The name is based on a hypothetical proposed in 1958 by H.L.A. Hart in an article about the intersection of law and morals. Hart proposed the hypothetical as a way to illustrate a point about ambiguous or “penumbral” rules.1
If we are to communicate with each other at all, and if, as in the most elementary form of law, we are to express our intentions that a certain type of behavior be regulated by rules, then the general words we use – like “vehicle” in the case I consider – must have some standard instance in which no doubts are felt about its application. There must be a core of settled meaning, but there will be, as well, a penumbra of debatable cases in which words are neither obviously applicable nor obviously ruled out.H.L.A. Hart
Positivism and the Separation of Law and Morals [p607]
The game uses this proposition — but obviously isn’t about signage in a park. Rather, it highlights how different users can interpret the same data in different ways. It’s upon interpretation that this data becomes information. It also shows the challenge of information design as it confronts human experiences.
Until interpreted, information is merely data. Designers need to make predictions of that interpretation.
When information fails into such “penumbral” areas, people will make reasonable assumptions. Predicting reactions to such penumbral or edge cases are the most challenging parts of information design.
Calgary Airport – Domestic Departures
Departing passengers’ tickets direct them to Gate B.
The overhead signage:
This prominent signage informs passengers of the wait times for their gate. A “Do Not Enter” symbol directly contradicts the information they were given. And, it provides no alternative route.
For a person expecting to go to Gate B, what’s a reasonable prediction of a user’s path when presented with this information?
- They’ll continue to the gate on their boarding pass and hope for additional information or redirection.
- They’ll seek out additional information from airline agents or airport personnel.
- They’ve seen this before and already know of an alternate route.
- They assume a sign is wrong (either their boarding pass or the physical signage).
In reality, the signage is simply noting that the security inspection point closest to the departing gate is closed. The passengers could enter security through other gates and then make their way to their departure gate afterwards.
But, critically, they are not given enough information to make that assumption. They don’t necessarily have information about the airport’s design or pathways. In instances of air travel, a user may very likely be entirely new to the airport. And, users may be fearful of breaking an unexpected rule.2
Ottawa Train Station
Ottawa, as the capital of Canada, is a major tourist destination. Many users passing through its space are arriving for the very first time. It’s a major transit hub that connects to the nearby LRT, buses to the airport, taxis, and private passenger buses. For many users, it acts as a gateway to Ottawa — and it’s the first time they will encounter local signage and information3
This sign appears in Ottawa’s VIA rail station. Take a look at the far left side of this wayfinding mark.
What does the following sign say to a first-time visitor to Ottawa?
To readers from outside of Ottawa: that red circle is the local designation for the ‘O-Train’ LRT system.
- The penumbra being the edge of a shadow (the umbra); the border between light and dark
- It’s not always their fault: “Operations at Canada’s largest airport were disrupted for several hours Thursday morning after airline staff accidentally led arriving passengers through the wrong door. The mistake resulted in thousands of passengers at Toronto Pearson International Airport to be grounded as transborder flights in Terminal 1 were delayed.”
- To further confuse first-time visitors, the VIA Rail informational site for the station lists the LRT as a train and bus
- To be clear, that ‘o’ is a default ‘dot’ from this site’s symbol set, and not the official logo.