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Do your graphics say the wrong thing?


If a picture really is worth a thousand words, which words? Graphics are usually the best tool we've got for sending a message--instructions, sign, marketing, entertainment, interface, etc.-- but what are we doing to make sure the person viewing the image sees the message we intended?

The picture above is a sign posted at a local trailhead. What does it mean? (Getting it wrong, by the way, means a $50 fine.) It's supposed to mean, "Each human can have no more than two dogs under their control." (this is a leash-optional trail) And while most people could--after cocking their head to the side--figure it out, I have to laugh about what else this sign says like:

"You can have a German Shepard, and an Old English Sheepdog, but SPRINGER SPANIELS ARE STRICTLY PROHIBITED!"

On a trail it's no big deal if you get it wrong or need to take a few extra moments to study it (or read the accompanying text, if there is some). But... imagine situations where it's a lot more important--where the consequences of misinterpretation are serious, and/or time-to-getting-it is scarce. Or imagine a situation where the person viewing the graphic is simultaneously bombarded with so much info that even the smallest bit of cognitive overhead means trouble...

So, what went wrong? How can we make it better? [UPDATE: for this sign, text really WOULD work fine. But the idea here is to practice on something simple.] The exercise is this: assume that for some reason you CANNOT use words, and have to convey the message that "a person can have no more than two dogs under voice/sight control (i.e. off-leash). Here's one idea I had for and a few simple suggestions. I'm hoping the information and/or graphic designers will jump in to improve on or extend what I've done...


Use only one breed of dog in the graphic. Or better yet, use an abstract representation of a dog rather than a specific dog type.

Having three different dogs is misleading--it makes it appear that the breed of dog matters, when the sign is about the quantity of dogs per person. Having different dogs suggests that there's something relevant about dog breeds (which in some contexts is true--some of the most aggressive breeds are banned from parts of Colorado).

Differences in an image are interpreted as meaningful information. If two things represent the same idea, make them the visually similar. Conversely, if two things represent different ideas, make them different!


User interface: if two buttons on a website are blue with round corners, they'll be interpreted as having some common function. If one of them is a navigation button and the other is a transaction button, there's a problem.

API design: if two methods in two related classes have a similar naming scheme, they'll be interpreted as performing a similar action. One of the worst examples I can think of in J2EE is ejbCreate() method--which means "create a new object" in Session beans, but for Entity beans, "insert a new record in the database and, oh yeah, pull an existing object from the pool..." It would have been easier to remember what ejbCreate() does for entity beans if they'd given it a completely different name... even an arbitrary name (although ejbInsert() might have been nice). Having two different behaviors with the same name means cognitive load because your brain wants to find the pattern between the two matching names...

In the dog sign, using three different dog pictures/breeds introduces cognitive noise that the viewer's brain will try to process as a meaningful distinction.

Include a person in the graphic (especially an abstract representation of a person).

The trailhead rule is about the relationship between dogs and people. It's not about the quantity of dogs--it's that each person cannot have more than two dogs.

Include the context! Show all relevant relationships, and if necessary, draw attention to the key concept.


In code samples in our book, rather than using code snippets, we reproduce the code in which that snippet matters, but draw attention to the key pieces by screening back the for-context-only pieces and bolding/highlighting the new or relevant piece.

The sign should have an "X" through three dogs, not just one, and show that one dog is OK and two dogs are OK (per person).

Think about what a sign/graphic is really supposed to say--if spoken--and try to "say" that same thing visually, in the least confusing way. In this case, the sign is supposed to say:

* A single individual can have one dog, or two dogs, but not three dogs.

So, the sign should show a picture of a person with one dog as OK, a person with two dogs as OK, and a person with three dogs as NOT OK.

The numbers on the side, "1, 2, 3" should go away (or be placed to the right of the dog images as reinforcement). And if the numbers are used, the "3" should ALSO have an "X" (or NO symbol) through it! In the current sign, the number "3" is bigger and bolder than the other numbers (what's up with THAT? And why is the "2" bigger than the "1"? There's no difference between one and two dogs...), but there's nothing to indicate that "3" is NOT OK.

Do not "say" something that isn't true. Whatever the brain sees first is likely to stick, so any attempt to qualify or make exceptions or explain what's on the sign in a way that conflicts with the image is a problem.


A shop window that lists hours of operation, then lists the exception underneath:

OPEN 7 AM to 7 PM
(Sundays Noon to 5)

In our books, we try not to show code or a process that's wrong without putting a big ol' warning over the top of it or right next to it. We want the learner's brain to see the code and the big flashing lights at the same time, processing them as one image--the image we want to stick. We don't want the wrong or untrue thing to take hold in their brain, and trying to undo it with a later exception or caveat or warning doesn't always work.

TWO MORE PRINCIPLES (not related to the dog sign):

Think about the implicit information conveyed by color, and exploit that (or at least don't violate it). For example, look at the following two images--one with the blue rectangle on top, and the other with the brown rectangle on top.



Does one of them feel a little...off? Even if you don't consciously notice it, your brain feels the difference. We're more used to seeing the blue sky above the brown earth, and the brain perceives cool, less saturated colors as "higher" while perceiving warmer, more saturated colors as "lower".

Trying to convey numeric or spatial relationships using color might cause cognitive dissonance if you represent a "higher" thing using brown, and a "lower" thing using light blue. On the other hand, you can use this hard-wired color perception to add a second layer of info to give the viewer one more chance to "get it" the way you meant it. Because of color blindness, or problems with different displays, etc., we try to avoid using color as the sole info channel, but color makes a nice way to add another channel that viewers will often feel rather than consciously think.

Although the best designers can be both clear and stylish, instructors don't always have that luxury. My favorite worst-case example comes from (where else) Sun, where the graphics/editorial department "prettied up" some of the graphics from one of the technical course books. The problem was... the graphics they "improved" were actually UML diagrams, where just about everything in the image means something.

For example, in UML the difference between a closed and open triangle is HUGE! But the non-technical designers thought the open triangles looked unattractive and decided to fill them in. They also took the squares and rounded the corners and, well, if you're a programmer, you get the idea of just how bad this was. The "new and improved" graphics now conveyed something completely different (or nothing at all) than the originals. But I'll be damned if they didn't look nicer on the page... ; )

[Disclaimer--I'm guilty of some really bad graphics myself, both in the blog and my books, so I don't get to be all graphicker-than-thou] What about you? Any bad signs or graphics you can point to? Any before-and-afters? Cheers!

[I'm back but only for two more days, then I leave again for two weeks. Thanks to everyone for continuing the conversation.]

Posted by Kathy on June 18, 2006 | Permalink


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Haha! I too thought it meant something about the type of dog. It might be more obvious in context...

...or maybe not.

Posted by: Tiara | Jun 18, 2006 5:41:49 PM

Heh, my first reaction was exactly what you wrote, except I don't know my dog breeds. Your improvement still feels a bit off. It's clear that three dogs are a problem, but it's still not clear why. Are they just spread too wide across the trail? Or maybe the stickwoman is allowed to have her own dog, and allowed to let her dog interact with one other dog, but not allowed to let her dog near a crowd of dogs? I'm no graphic designer, but I'd start with the stick woman, and a dog on a leash to the right, then another dog on a leash to the left, then a third dog on a leash to the right.

Posted by: Scott Reynen | Jun 18, 2006 6:34:44 PM

Hmm. Scott, nice idea but the leashes would complicate the design (and the trail is leash optional).

Also adding to different sides doesn't read effienctly. When drawn, it looks more like a pattern puzzle, and perhaps is asking what is the correct third line - perhaps it was meant to be dog, person, dog, person.

Which is where the problem is... it _is_ a pattern puzzle. Hmm. I guessed it was something about the dog, wasn't sure it was the breed, maybe the last dog had fleas.

Posted by: Matt | Jun 18, 2006 7:35:29 PM

But why is the person with the dogs a women? Is it because men are allowed as many dogs as they like? :-P

Posted by: Lloyd | Jun 18, 2006 7:35:38 PM

Man I like this blog. Get's you really thinking.

How do you clear away from the gender issue. Does your new sign mean men with 3 dogs are ok. Only kidding.

Posted by: Stephen | Jun 18, 2006 8:35:02 PM

If you put: 1 (checkmark), 2 (checkmark) and 3 (big x) next to each line, I think it becomes very clear that 1 or 2 dogs is okay, but 3 dogs is not.

Anyway, "No more than 2 dogs per person" is way faster to parse than even the improved sign. I'd rather have 7 words than a thousand.

Posted by: James | Jun 18, 2006 8:46:42 PM

Just as another suggestion: maybe crunch it all down into one graphic - one figure with 3 dogs, the thrid w/ an X through it. Can't it be assumed that if two dogs are OK, so is 1?

Posted by: Jake Ingman | Jun 18, 2006 9:27:15 PM

When I read some of these comments, I think that lots of us have lots of time in our hands!!!

Posted by: OCtavio | Jun 18, 2006 10:03:52 PM

Maybe it's just me, but when it comes to information to be conveyed to a general public, I see no problem whatsoever in using good old plain text to carry a complex message that can't be explained in less than four words.

Graphical symbols are good to convey simple ideas but hopeless at more complex concepts. That's why we have "OK" and "Cancel" symbol buttons in a GUI but we do not have one for "re-format disk and re-install Windows".

Other than the BSOD - but that's STILL text!

Posted by: Noons | Jun 18, 2006 10:06:11 PM

I agree with the above commenter about the text. Why not just have:

"More than 2 dogs per person NOT permitted"

Posted by: Eric | Jun 18, 2006 10:16:26 PM

El problema con solamente usar el texto es que no todo al mundo hable inglés.

Which is this gringo's attempt at saying that signs are good when you can't count on everyone knowing how to read-- or read a single language.

Posted by: Jeremy Dunck | Jun 18, 2006 11:43:19 PM

Lloyd, Stephen: I had to laugh out loud at that one! It actually means, "People wearing DRESSES can have a maximum of two dogs."

Scott: The rule is actually slightly more complicated than I stated it, which makes the leash thing tricky--the restriction applies ONLY to off-leash dogs. You have a good point about the "why" question still sitting out there, and I did nothing to answer that. So the sign *really* needs to say, "No more than two dogs under sight/voice control per person (but on-leash dogs are OK. Or at least I think... the signs and text on that weren't clear either!)

Jake: I thought about that, and was on the fence. I wasn't 100% sure it said it all, but if it does, then your way would be much better.

Everyone who said, "just use text":

1) That was not the exercise ; ) I should have been more explicit in saying, "assume that for some reason you CANNOT use words..." The point is to practice with something simple...

2) Most of us don't have the problem of using graphics when words will do just fine. In the tech world, we use FAR too many words when graphics would be 1,000 times better for quicker and more accurate grokking, retention, and recall.

3) In this particular sign, using text isn't the best because the sign is meant to be read from a distance, and people would have to physically leave the trail and walk to where it's posted to read the text (unless the sign was made much larger). And as Jeremy pointed out, using a single language isn't always appropriate (and adding even a second translation--in my case it would be Spanish--would make the sign even larger...

OK, so back to the exercise: suspend disbelief and imagine that you could not use words to say it. If you don't need practice in thinking and communicating visually, then you can help the vast majority of us who do!

Cheers ; )

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jun 19, 2006 12:05:57 AM

Actually it implies that people wearing dresses are not permitted three black dogs (and there's no indication about four as professional dog walkers would no doubt seek to exploit).

Thus, in this case, it would be better to use actual photos of various combinations of gender specific walkers and varieities of dogs. Those combinations which are unlawful would be photographed receiving a ticket from a warden. What a wonderful country!

Yes, there would be grey areas for debate, but on the grounds that ignorance is no defence, all people too stupid to understand this simple premise would deservedly be fined.

Posted by: john dodds | Jun 19, 2006 4:54:48 AM

I guess you don't even need the first line of your graphic (the one with just one dog). It's safe to assume that if two dogs are allowed, than there's no reason why one dog would NOT be allowed.

Although, this requires some thought on the part of the reader, and sometimes thinking is too much to ask.

Posted by: Sean C. | Jun 19, 2006 6:48:49 AM

What you can leave out from a graphic is determined by what you can assume the viewers implicitly understand. Without a common implicit understanding, any communication is ambiguous, even if you do use text. As a non dog-owner, I brought in an assumption that "under control" was a synonym for "on a leash", so even the written language above initially confused me. Can we assume that dog owners are used to rules about numbers of dogs on and off leash, and expect to see those kinds of instructions in signs? Otherwise who knows what it could mean, given a different implicit understanding: a future archaeologist might come up with the theory that the sign belonged to a temple in a dog worshipping society and that acolytes had to be accompanied by one or two dogs to proceed along the path.

Posted by: DL | Jun 19, 2006 7:32:02 AM

"a future archaeologist might come up with the theory that the sign belonged to a temple in a dog worshipping society and that acolytes had to be accompanied by one or two dogs to proceed along the path."

Oh that is too too good, DL. I may never see the world the same way again now that you said that... what a fun way to look at signs. Of course you did make a key point that implicit understanding and previous context matter. And in fact, I actually do NOT understand all the dog rules at the trail (and once DID get a $50 fine for not having a leash ON me, even though my dog was under control... you still have to carry a leash even if you're not required to use it).
But for example, I'm not sure what happens when you have a combination of on and off-leash dogs, although it appears that you could have 247 on-leash dogs as long as not more than two dogs "under your control" were off-leash. Sheesh.

But I'm getting one lesson here... that even trying to communicate something seemingly so simple isn't always quite as clear as it appears.

John: I think your multiple-combination gender-and-dog-specific sign is the best path. But since you're having fun with me here, I'm going to have to violate every internet privacy law in this galaxy and post what you sent me in an email:
"You mean it's not some wild west version of the three
strikes law. Three offences and the dog gets it!"
; )

Sean: You hit on the main idea for me--that even the *tiniest* bit of thinking means cognitive overhead, and while again--cognitive overhead while running along a trail isn't a problem, it matters deeply when a lot more information is pouring in and those little bits of overhead stack up. It breaks flow when the conscious mind has to come to full attention to think, and we try to follow Steve Krug's "Don't Make Me Think" mantra (or rather, don't make me think about the wrong thing.)

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jun 19, 2006 8:20:28 AM

I like the design exercise, but it seems clear that the problem is the law itself. If only the designer had the freedom to re-cast the problem, it would all be avoidable :)

This is one of those situations where the law is getting in the way of itself, ironically due to what I assume is an attempt to be as lenient as possible. The intent of the law is that you be able to control any canine(s) you may bring to the trail. So the law SHOULD just be "no out of control canines," not "we assume you can control two dogs but not three dogs so you can have two or fewer but you have to carry leashes for them just in case you can't actually control them after all, and if you want other dogs on leashes that's cool too."

That way you just need a sign with three elements:
- an angry-faced owner yelling at a dog
- the dog flipping off the owner and grinning
- a big red circle and slash over the whole scene

Posted by: Chris | Jun 19, 2006 9:01:23 AM

"Each human can have no more than two dogs under their control."

This implies that I can have two dogs under control and 50,000 bitches in heat running around scrapping. :)

Drop the human from the graphic and show the dogs with collars attached. In the background place an image of a hiker carrying a leash to further imply control. The X on the third image is over both the dogs and the hiker.

Posted by: Mark | Jun 19, 2006 10:34:12 AM

DL, you can't assume anything about dog owners knowing and understanding the rules.

In all the examples given, only Chris even tried to address the second point of the sign. That is, that the up to two dogs off-leash must be under control. In my book that means can you keep your off-leash dog from running up to my on-leash dog? Can you get it to come by calling it once? Will your dog leave the hiker who really doens't like dogs alone?

Posted by: Julie | Jun 19, 2006 11:00:44 AM

Soret of related:


Posted by: Danny Hope | Jun 19, 2006 11:37:43 AM

The "future archaeologist" perspective is a good exercise.

However this exact problem is very real and is the ultimate graphic design challenge faced by the U.S. government right now:


It kind of makes my little Photoshop/Web design issues seem trivial.

Posted by: Joel Lawhead | Jun 19, 2006 11:47:08 AM

Reminded me of a Laurie Anderson riff, from United States Live:

"Hello. Excuse me. Can you tell me where I am?

In our country, we send pictures of people speaking our sign language in Outer Space. We are speaking our sign language in these pictures.

Do you think that They will think his arm is permanently attached in this position?

Oh, do you think They will read our signs? In our country, Goodbye looks just like Hello. Say Hello."

Posted by: Dave J. | Jun 19, 2006 2:07:40 PM

Sorry if someone had already mentioned this (didn't get a chance to read all the comments), but I'd say that the most effective way to pictorially represent the 'no more than two dogs per person' rule is to depict three people (stick figures), at the same level, from left to right. The leftmost person keeping one (abstract) dog in close proximity, the middle person keeping two dogs in close proximity, and finally the rightmost person keeping three dogs in close proximity. The third person and the three dogs are then crossed with a red X, or with a stop sign.

I know this is a minor quibble, but I think it makes a hell of a difference, because it implies walking with dogs. The original solution, with three people and their respective dogs lined up vertically, lose some of the trail context.


Posted by: Alex Bunardzic | Jun 19, 2006 4:48:39 PM

What about two people with four dogs - ok?

Here in open country on farmland or commonland loose dogs are liable to be shot by farmers concerned about sheep/lambs. And no dog is under control if off the lead/leash!

The best sign locally to deter bad behaviour with dogs, is the one showing the number of dogs shot year-to-date. It has several crossings out with numbers replaced with greater totals as the year progresses.

Visitors who like to let their dogs off the lead tend to have second thoughts after seeing that!


Posted by: Wally | Jun 20, 2006 3:29:58 AM

What about cats?

Posted by: Bob | Jun 20, 2006 8:20:21 AM

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