Head To The (New) Exit Signs?


A friend sent me an article on emergecy exit signs from an online magazine that I don’t read, called Slate.

After reading it, I will almost certainly continue not to read it, but do want to address something the article points out. There is apparently a movement afoot to do away with our current emergency exit signs.


“Do away with” is not entirely correct. More accurately,  some people want to replace the standard “EXIT” sign that you and I have grown up with, with a picture – specifically, a human form who appears to be running towards an open door.


This is not a new movement. They’ve been working on this for over 25 years. What’s new is that they’re getting some traction, particularly with a group that never seems happy with how things are – yep, you guessed it, Congress.

The reason for wanting the change?

Our current emergency “exit” sign can not be understood by people who can’t read English. Also, the color is red, which pretty much means “danger” in any language, and could actually scare people away from it, who didn’t know any better – or so says this group of sign-changing lobbyists.

That’s why a new style of exit sign was invented in the late 70’s, by designer Yokio Ota. It shows a human figure running towards what appears to be an open door. Ota’s design was adopted by the International Standardization Organization and is now the template for many countries around the world.

So be it. If they like it, use it.

Here in the U.S. the standards for exit signs were set in the 30’s by The National Fire Protection Association. And while the color red has become the standard, it’s not required by the NFPA – just enough contrast between the writing and the background, so people can read it.

Maybe I sound like an old fogey – do something, doesn’t mean it’s right for us, here in the good ole’ U.S.

The argument that someone who doesn’t speak our language, wouldn’t understand what an “EXIT” sign means, seems ridiculous. Since people the world over are used to seeing a sign associated with a doorway that leads them out of the building they’re in, wouldn’t it be reasonable to think that a foreigner who sees a lot of big, red, illuminated signs above a lot of doors, would figure out in short order that that’s probably a ぬける sign? (“to exit” in Japanese)

I mean, is it really that much more clear when you look at Mr. Ota’s running man sign? Besides, having to constantly look at a person running for the exits while I’m trying to enjoy a movie, is scarier to me than thirty-foot high red flashing EXIT letters.

And regardless of whether it’s a red word or a green guy, wouldn’t someone with that person, teach them what it means, or wouldn’t they learn on their own? If I saw ぬけるin red, repeatedly over doors in Japan, I think I’d get the hint – hey, that must be an emergency exit!

 I’m all for change, if it’s change for the better, or change for a reasonable purpose.

But we’re talking about retrofitting literally tens of thousands of signs in this country, just for people who are not living here but are simply visiting – because I’m guessing that the people who do move here from overseas, have to learn some ability to speak English. Does that seem reasonable?  I couldn’t imagine moving to China without eventually learning some Chinese – wouldn’t I have to, if I was going to be able to survive being there?

But hey, if the green running man sign becomes the standard exit sign in this country (and I doubt it will, no more than the metric system has become our measurement standard) we’ll sell it at Adventure Lighting – just like we sell the “old fashioned” exit signs.



Jack Huff, along with his son Brian and wife Sue, owns and manages Adventure Lighting in Des Moines, Iowa. For more information, go to www.adventurelighting.com

5 responses to “Head To The (New) Exit Signs?”

  1. Kathy says:

    Re: Exit Signs – when we were in Germany many years ago, my kids had me convinced that the green guy was running for the bathroom! So much for “universal language”!

  2. Chuck says:

    Since about everything is at least bi-lingual now anyway why not have both. That way congress gets thier way and the sign and lighting suppliers make more money.

    • Hey, I don’t have a problem with selling new exit signs to everyone… I just think it’s going to get annoying when you’re sitting down to a nice dinner with your wife/gf, and you’re blinded by the 6 exit signs crowding each door.

  3. Steve Davis says:

    In an emergency you are not supposed to run, why does the sign show a man running, please help as its a question on a course I’m on

    • Excellent question. Probably one best answered by the designers of these fixtures. I honestly have no idea. My guess is that it’s hard to draw a stick figure walking with urgency. Or, they took a page out of the QWOP runner. Once you get the knees bent and hips moving, it may look like running. But you’re really just going to end up on the ground crawling.

      If you have no idea what I’m talking about, google: QWOP Game. It’s impossible.

      Hope this helps! But I’m sure I haven’t. Bottom line, I don’t think there’s a good answer for this one.

      Brian Huff

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