A Brief History of the Exit Sign | ARTiculations

A Brief History of the Exit Sign | ARTiculations


You’ve probably all seen an exit sign before
and have a pretty good idea of what one looks like. But how an exit sign looks differs depending
on where you live. However, there is one design that most designers
agree is the best and most effective. That’s the ISO graphic symbol for emergency
exits – designed by Japanese graphic designer Yukio Ota. Well, I should say, most of us outside of
the US agree that it’s the best. If you live in the US, or maybe elsewhere,
you may be skeptical. But, I’m here to try to convince you otherwise. In the late 1970s, a Japanese fire safety
association held a contest for a new national exit sign design. Entries underwent extensive user testing to
evaluate their effectiveness in smokey environments. The winner, among over 3000 entries was Yukio
Ota’s design. Ota’s primary design philosophy is to create universal symbols that transcend language barriers. That vision, at least for this particular
design, was realized in 1985 when ISO, the International Organization for Standardization,
adopted the Japanese exit sign as a part of their standards for safety signs. ISO was founded in 1947 to unify standards
across nations and better facilitate international trade. There are ISO standards for just about everything
from the classifications of shipping containers to standards for brewing tea. Ota’s design is now used all over the world. Certain regions sometimes use a variation
it, but essentially, the green and white running figure can be found everywhere from China,
to Czech Republic, to France, and to Canada. So why is this a good design? Well first, it’s doesn’t require you to
know the language the sign happens to be in. Our world is becoming increasingly globalized. I live in a city with a pretty large immigrant
population who aren’t all fluent in English. But maybe you think, if someone is moving
to a new country they should learn basic words like “exit.” Okay, yes probably. But what about tourists, young children, and
people with reading related disabilities? Overall, a pictogram-based sign is just more
accessible. But why is this particular design better than
other pictogram based signs? Well, because it’s a simple design, but
it communicates a lot. The figure appears to be running out of a
doorway, but running steadily and calmly as opposed to sprinting and rushing. Because in an emergency you want people to
move swiftly, but without panicking. According to Ota, they finessed the design
back and forth 58 times before settling on the final design. As designers, we’re often accused of squabbling
over seemingly tiny details. Yeah I’ll admit some of us are probably
a little crazy. But it’s mostly because these details matter. It’s our job is to communicate design intent
to the end user in the most simple and direct way. And in this particular context of developing
an international design for emergency situations, no small detail should be overlooked. Lastly there is the debate about colour. A key aspect of good design is providing users
with consistent expectations. Most exit signs in the US and Canada are red. However, red is usually used to represent
concepts like Danger, Stop, and Do Not Enter. So it’s kind of inconsistent to also use
red to represent “go that way, it’s safe.” I live in Canada where traditional exit signs
are the red EXIT or SORTIE signs. But in 2010, the National Building Code finally
adopted the ISO exit design. It is now mandatory in new buildings or buildings
undergoing extensive renovation. So why doesn’t the US adopt the ISO sign? Well it’s hard to say. Maybe it’s because the US is a lot more
mono-lingual than countries in Europe and Asia? And maybe that’s why Canada eventually caught
on, since we have two official languages. I don’t really know. If you live in the US, leave a comment. And maybe you live in a place where the exit
sign looks different than any of the one I’ve shown I’d love to see them. Let me know in the comments below. Speaking of Canada and fire emergencies. Did you know the Canadian government deliberately
burned down a village in 1958? To learn more about that, why don’t we head
on over to Tom Scott’s channel – Tom: Hi! D’Ahhhh! Betty: Hahahaha where he dies. Tom: Ahem. I’m fine. Just a Go Pro. Slippy down there.


100 thoughts on “A Brief History of the Exit Sign | ARTiculations

  1. This makes me think of crosswalk signs in the US and how they changed (well, still in the process of changing) to pictograms from text based "walk"/"don't walk" signs to make them more accessible. Hopefully exit signs make a similar change here over time.

  2. The US still uses the Imperial system. We just don't like to change. Also hello from Tom Scott's channel.

  3. Question: What language is the top sign at 1:47 in? I love it!

    Also: Great video! I came from Tom Scott's channel and will definitely be watching more of your stuff!

  4. 1:18 The United Kingdom is not even on the map

    Plus here in the U.K. we have had that sign for ages I swear

  5. When I see the ISO design I immediately think of the exit pictograph in the Portal video games, which is very close to the same image. It makes sense they would utilize such shorthand in a game whose designers try to make the most of gameplay by reducing explicit instructions where possible (eg, the commentary in the games about how the first levels were designed to teach the puzzle mechanisms through puzzles themselves). Great video, I love being able to appreciate deliberate design like what you've presented!

  6. Here in the US, it's probably due to everyone being expected to know English here combined with the natural human aversion to change. And the potential difficulty of re-training the population. After all, I know that I personally find the glowing red exit sign to be really iconic, and in an emergency that's what I would be looking for.

  7. We see these signs in the US, just as braille plaques and not overhead signs. And everyone understands what "Exit" means as they see it accompanied by the plaque.

  8. Why doesn't the US use the ISO standard? For the same reason we don't use the Metric system—your average American cares more about doing things the "American Way" than whether an established custom make any sense. As a rule, we are loathe to change our behavior in response to external regulation or request regardless of whether that change would be beneficial or not.

    Is it misguided patriotism, shortsighted laziness, or pig-headed stubbornness? I'm not sure; probably a mixture of all three. But who cares? Because 'Murica! Heck yeah!

    This flat refusal to adopt new methods in our daily lives—even when those methods are objectively better—will be our downfall.

  9. The USA doesn't even use DIN paper sizes. There's rejecting the metric system and then there's just being obtuse. I do get why Canada so often uses the same stuff the USA does though.

  10. Same reason the US has it's own international Standard Book number, and refuses/refused to use the same one as the rest of the planet.

    Fuck you. We're america.

  11. The green sign makes me think "path". If the person isn't running from anything, how is this an emergency? Draw some danger-oriented symbol chasing him. Also, when I see green, I think happy thoughts, like when I get to start driving again at an intersection. So it looks like it's telling me where the stairs are.

  12. The colour on exit signs (at least) in California has been changing to green for a number of years now — I think both due to the green=go connotation but also that green is better seen through smoke and "light colour" of a fire. As for why they wouldn't change to the ISO sign, well, I'd wager it's not too far off as to why there hasn't been a switch to the metric system. 😉 More seriously, it would take someone petitioning the ICC to include it in the model IBC code, or to have a large State amend the IBC when they adopt it as their State code to include or require the sign.

    Cool that the sign originated in Japan! I saw tonnes of them while I was over there, and didn't know at the time they'd become the international standard. It's a good design! Immediate and intuitive. 🙂

  13. I live in Texas, USA and my job recently switched their Exit word signs from being in red to being in green. Now I know why.

  14. That exit sign is also supposed to point in the direction a person should turn, if turning is necessary after breaching the doorway, to get to the next point of exit or safety

  15. I live in the U.S. and travel to Canada when I am able to… I can't say I've noticed adoption of the new sign being worse here. It might not be in the codes, but at least in St. Louis, which is where I lived until last week, I see the new symbol increasingly often, and did not think anything of it when I saw it in Canada. I remember thinking it was odd to have a green emergency sign when I first saw them in the U.S….. it seems that we picked up the green faster than the symbol, though, as these new, much harder to read signs are green-lit glass with EXIT etched into them.

    I did originally think red made more sense because red lighting is easier to discern at a distance… but I have actively paid attention and the green lighting doesn't seem to be significantly worse.

    Good video, thanks!

  16. I always thought that green is a lot better for seeing in a fire. If a building catches fire and burns green you have got big problems!

  17. The design of the the exit symbol is fine. The reason the US doesn't accept it is because of it's "learn English or leave" mentality. That's what i think, i don't know the real reason.

  18. Why don't you see it in the USA more? Simple, cost. An Average to code anywhere in the USA exit sign costs ~$30, an international one, $90+ according too 5 minutes of searching. Feel free to prove me wrong.

  19. American here. I have noticed both green and red EXIT signs in several different states. Never thought about it before, but I agree that green is a much better choice!

    Also, I looked into why we don't use the ISO "running figure" sign. As other commenters have noted, most building codes in the USA are finally determined at the state and local levels. However, all those codes are based on the so-called "International Building Code" (which is followed by the USA and a few other countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Middle East). IBC is, in turn, based on a consolidation of three competing codes dating back to the early twentieth century.
    The IBC recommendations on exit signs can be found in section 1013 here: https://codes.iccsafe.org/public/document/IBC2018/chapter-10-means-of-egress.

    Further complicating matters, there are often multiple regulatory federal, state, or local agencies that have their say in how a building must be built, depending on its location and intended use. You can read more at this page by a major American industrial supply company: https://www.grainger.com/content/qt-emergency-lighting-exit-sign-requirements-265

    Any major change in something like this has benefits, costs, and risks. (You can easily imagine a panicked American overcome by smoke while searching in vain for the red EXIT, oblivious to the green running figure.) I guess the people who make these decisions in the US have simply judged the costs and risks of a major switchover to outweigh the benefits. Just as is the case with metric versus US units. 🙂

    By the way, for me personally, the first time I saw the running figure sign in my travels abroad, I thought it meant "stairs," not necessarily "exit." …I never claimed to be a smart man. 😐

  20. In the US, exit signs can be either red or green, depending on the state. Here's a map: https://goo.gl/images/2SR6vp

  21. As an American, I can say the reason we don't use the ISO sign, or why we haven't standardized a lot of things is because the old one is adequate. A red sign that says "EXIT" in English communicates where the exit is to a country that mostly speaks English. The only other really widespread language here is Spanish and in Spanish speaking areas the signs will say "Exit/Salida" and many Americans understand both English and Spanish translations of common warnings anyway. The US government moves very slowly and is set up to favor the status quo. The reason the US hasn't and probably won't adopt the metric system is because our customary systems works, is understood by Americans, and is already well established. Similarly, the red "EXIT" effectively communicates to Americans where the exit is, even if it is not the best way to do so.

  22. Huh Neat!

    I think most people have said what the main reasons why the US still says "Exit" although I do want to also say that I have seen "Salida" in a few places, but I suspect that the main reason it's only Exit and not both is just a backlash against Spanish in public spaces in the US.

    There is a bit of a side story to this though, I have never seen the ISO symbol used on Airplanes, only the red "exit", occasionally with other languages.

  23. In the US, I've noticed the signs still say exit, but the color is now green, not red. I guess green is more of a "come here" color than red, as you said in the video.

  24. Hey I thought I would leave a comment to say I came from the Tom Scott collaboration video and as a former student of architecture I like what you are doing here.

  25. I hate that sign. I always get confused by it. It seems to say "running crazy zombie people here" and it's something I want to get away from, like a security guard – which is the color for police in germany and some American states (sheriff = green/tan).

  26. The reason the US is slow to split international standards isn't a cultural thing. It's a logistical/efficiency issue. It's a big country with a 50 states that like to pretend be there autonomous. Congress can't agree on what to other for lunch without running it through a dozen committees and focus groups, then passing the menu on to state legislatures on a voluntary basis.

  27. I live in the US, and growing up I always assumed any door with an exit sign was an emergency exit only, because the signs are red. I assumed red means don’t go here, so I understood it to mean, “This exit is only to be used in emergencies.” I would support a move to the ISO sign in the US, but I could definitely imagine it getting a lot of backlash from the reactionary crowd.

  28. Standards are great but there are places they just arent suitable.

    I used to work in a glass factory. 90% of glass is green so of course the company uses green in all their marketing and signs. This means the factory was not only full of huge stacks of green glass but the whole place was painted the company green colour. This meant all the standard exit signs and first aid signs just blend in to the background.

    After a bit of pushing they got an exemption from usual building codes and were allowed to install red exit signs. Much safer in this very specific case.

  29. In Australia exit signs HAVE to be green because red signs can't be seen in fire that easily (since the light from fire is red) and the Parliament House of the senate had t get special permissions to have red exit signs because green signs would upset the completely red color scheme of the room

  30. I have seen the green exit signs for quite a few years. One of the things I have noticed is the visible colors in fog. Red is usually more visible than yellow, which is more visible than Green. Smoke, on the other hand adds a red haze to the air, and I have no idea what this to color visibility.

  31. It is the USA – they always do stuff differently.
    Aside from the US customary units, 120V, MM-DD-YYYY and other things.

  32. 0:07 We have those in Russia
    The common types are:
    ВЫХОД
    ВЫХОД ->
    <- ВЫХОД
    Or the Exit icon

  33. I would say the exit sign are red in america because the red indicates that it is the exit for an emergency and not necessarily a normal exit (sometimes there are exits which trigger the fire alarm if you use them).
    So red does relate to danger in the sense of "use this when there is danger" and it's clear (assuming you know English) that the sign is saying "go this way for the exit" because it says "exit".

  34. Is it only me but whenever I see an Exit sign like the one at 0:02 I look between the E and the X and it looks like a house is there.

  35. Just an area of note: the US actually has no official language. English is regarded as a de facto official language, as it is the closest to one and is widely spoken across all regions of the country.

  36. Hi Betty. I just captioned into Spanish your video and the Comment Responses video, and I would like to have your approval to be published here in YouTube. It´s a great video and it helps a lot to convince why we all should use the ISO exit sign.

  37. Red is the universal flag for danger.
    Using red to indicate the way to safety is pure nonsense.
    People will instinctively hesitate and lose precious seconds when they don't have time to waste.

  38. The US won't ever switch because republicans stop any action that they perceive indicates diversity and globalization.

  39. A large portion of the exit signs in the US are green. I think it's mostly forward momentum causing the signs to stay the same. We've seen the same thing since we were just little, so it's quite recognizable.

  40. Knowing the American Congress, probably because enough Congressmen think it's silly to change what works therefore we don't need it. Or, they don't want to take part in what they see as some globalist conspiracy, like with the metric system.

  41. The U.S. typically sees these sorts of changes of symbols, language, and units as more jarring and imposing than most other countries do. Since there is little apparent need or political will for a change, the issue will just remain ignored. There is no reason to push for something that will irritate your voters.

  42. Why doesn't the US adopt it? Same reason they don't adopt many international standards: exceptionalism.

  43. Accurate and informative video. We enjoyed your recap and it's obvious, this design communicates the idea of safety very well. Hopefully these type of Exit Signs become nationally recognized.

  44. As an American, I’m not sure why we haven’t adopted the ISO accepted standard for the exit sign. I think it’s for the same reason that the US hasn’t officially adopted the metric system yet.

  45. Also, aeroplanes use the US-style red writing on their exit signs. I assume that is an international requirement that follows the American influence.

  46. One reason I can see for US continued use of "EXIT" instead of the running man is the ease of manufacturing of the sign itself.

    With the running man, the nature of the design (employing both green and white coloring) means the entire sign face of a typical back-lit exit sign must be made of a translucent material to allow all elements of the sign to be lit in the two colors. Also, it seems that the orientation of the running man through the door flips depending on if the exit route is to the right or the left. This means needing to manufacture a couple different sign message elements pieces depending on installation.

    Contrast this to most modern back-lit exit signs in the US. The housings for these are typically constructed of non-translucent rigid plastic or metal (the color of which does not matter, can be white, black, metallic, etc. to match architectural features). The sign face has the EXIT letters cut out to allow the light through (and includes removable punch outs for small arrows). A red or green translucent plastic diffuser is placed on the interior of the housing behind the cutout elements to produce the illuminated color message. Such construction allows just one sign face style to be manufactured, which can be customized at installation based on whether the sign needs to indicate a left/right exit route. Also note that this allows only one color to illuminate. (Many exit sign manufacturers also include both red and green diffusers with their signs, so either exit light color can be chosen right out of the box.)

    The US changing to the running man isn't impossible, but would need consideration in changing how we manufacture our exit signs.

  47. America couldn't even add a tiny, tiny amount of color to some of the money without it devolving into partisan screaming and accusations of betrayals of the country, Constitution, God or whatever B.S that they flung at each other (although I do have to say it is mainly from the Republican Party, the same bunch of thundering idiots who gave us Trump). Everything new is seen as a subversion of their system or an attempt by foreign powers to take away their sovereignty, especially if it involves the UN. It's American Exceptionalism gone mad.

  48. Emergency signs – security
    https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.fjapps.juanc.senalemergencia
    This app shows the main emergency signs used in mining, oil, electrical and other industries.

  49. Emergency and fire signs

    https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.fjapps.juanc.senalesincendioemergencia

    This app shows the main emergency and fire signals used in mining, oil, electrical and other industries.

  50. Arrggh…you put an image up of a Tom Scott video @ 1:28, that I hadn't seen (about making Tea) but you didn't make it clickable or in the description. 😛

    Now I have to search for it.

    You've Gained another Subscriber (From NB, Cdn)

    Sorry 😛

  51. I wish places would have to have signs showing how disabled people can get somewhere safe. The exit sign doesn't show whether the exit involves stairs, if you're in a building that has exits on different levels, that's important.

    It's also why public buildings should have special rooms for disabled people to shelter in if there's a fire. It could give us a chance of surviving, rather than the current attitude of "meh, they're not worth saving."

  52. I assumed they were green as the human eye is most sensitive to that wavelength and thus would increase the probability of seeing the sign during or after an emergency.

  53. the brief history of the green and white exit sign in the thumbnail with the man running thru was originally known as nigerias first national flag

  54. Here from Tom's video as well! I love the psychology and humanistic ways of thinking behind this, and the video as well! Subbed.

  55. Thanks a lot for nice informative video!
    In Korea, we use the ISO green running-person exit signs, but we have kind of interesting colour regulations about it.
    According to the NFSC 303 Emergency Exit Light and Exit Marking Code in Korea (National Fire Safety Code) classifies the exit signs in two groups- the direct exit sign (the exit sign that installed right above the exit door to indicate the location of the exit) and exit path marking sign (has the arrow that shows the direction towards the exit).
    Based on NFSC 303, the direct exit sign must be original green ISO sign, but the path marking sign's must have white background with ISO exit sign.
    As a result, in Korea, most emergency exit signs at the middle of the hallway or on the intersection of the corridor are white, but has green arrow and small ISO exit sign together.
    We only use original green ISO exit sign right above the exit door.

  56. It's for the same reason the U.S. still hangs on to those rather silly imperial units of measurements. Some of it is simply custom and some of it is national pride. Of course it should be noted that all imperial units are defined in metric units.

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