Existential angst and experience design in Russia

Rob explores communication and why designing with meaning in mind matters and can determine the experience people have.

A glass door with a no-entry sign

Symbols and signs that are seemingly so established and universal that they are thought of as self-evident may, in fact, not be all that obvious after all. Humans have indeed communicated with visual concepts for thousands of years. Now that communication is required to work universally across societies, the experience of what and how we communicate has never been more relevant. 

As my colleague Mario recently delved into in a detailed piece on semiotics in design we use signs to circumvent the obstacles language presents us with, to inform or increase the usability of a product or action, ultimately aiming to make things simpler for people. We design these so well, that we take the ‘commonly understood’ for granted. We shouldn’t…

Recently, I was fortunate to spend time in Russia. Moscow in particular gave me plenty to muse over from an experiential point of view. In this piece I’ll share one quip about why designing communication with meaning in mind can have such an impact over the experience people have. 

This particularly existential reflection comes from my journeys on Moscow’s underground—the vast, deep, weaving network that snakes below the city. First, their trains (even the oldest) have WiFi provided by Russian tech giant Yandex. Stations and newer trains feature USB charging ports. Take note TfL

But, really, I want to bring forward the gap between the theory of signage, and the actual suitability of that sign. You see, in theory, signage that cover issues around safety and prohibited behaviour should be universal. But that isn’t always the case.

This is because language and culture play a deeper role. When you travel on the underground, observing a ‘No Exit’ sign is one of those messages people take as universal. For the Moscow Metro system, that proved to be very different. 

You see, in Russian, ‘No Exit’ evokes deeper, more existential connotations. Because ‘No Exit’ translates in Russian as ‘No Escape’, ‘No Solution’, or ‘No Way Out’.

“Выхода нет” – no exit

It’s a subtle nuance, but it made the Moscow ‘No Exit’ sign – innocuous as we may assume it to be – quite sinister to some local passengers. So much so that the Russian transport board connected this blind spot in how the sign had a gloomy subliminal message, with the emotional stress the harsh economic times brought about, and the increased suicide rate of travellers. This observation prompted an immediate response by the transport authority.

After using the skills and knowledge of psychotherapists, and qualitatively assessing the effects of the signs with passengers, the proposed redesigned sign was to read ‘No Through Way’ and gradually exit signs were replaced (still, of course, reading ‘No Exit’ in English). This operation ran between 2005-2008 at considerable expense to the transport authority. Lives were literally on the line.

“Нет прохода” – no through way

Every day we are exposed to signs, icons, labels and instructions which guide us to complete simple, but often important tasks, or guide us away from harm or causing disruption.

Designing these, or implementing them requires a deeper awareness of how the meaning of these is determined by the cultural background of our users. This applies to shapes, colours or icons, but it is crucial when we use language, or even a word, in the attempt to establish a universal convention.

The need for a consideration of the wider, social and linguistic context is always required – whether an interface is designed in a native language for a native market or not. Because, as my time on the tube in Moscow shows, it may not be suitable for the specific audience you have in mind.

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