About The Author
Amanda O'Brien

In her role as VP of Strategy, Amanda is responsible for driving strategic thinking on behalf of Phase 3 clients. She works closely with members of Phase 3’s multidisciplinary team to build effective marketing strategies and develop strong and uniquely identifiable brands. Relentlessly curious with a perpetual love of learning, Amanda has immersed herself in a wide variety of industries, from road technology and real estate development to diamond jewelry and dental insurance. Both a writer and visual thinker, Amanda has a knack for distilling complex challenges into simple and powerful ideas.

Professional Signage in a Crisis: What You Say—And How You Say It—Matters

By Amanda O'Brien
April 20, 2020

It’s no secret that thoughtful and well-designed branding and signage can dramatically impact the way people feel about a business.

How you look on the outside tells customers a lot about the way your business operates behind the scenes. But what happens to customer expectations in a crisis like the one we’re facing now with Covid-19? Are essential businesses held to the same communications standards when public safety protocols are changing daily—or, in some cases, hourly?


Our team took to social media to gather feedback from friends about the signage they’re seeing at essential businesses—and whether it makes them feel better, worse, or indifferent. While there were a few outliers who couldn’t care less whether a store’s signage was scrawled in Sharpie, the vast majority of people expressed their appreciation for businesses that put time and effort into clearly expressed communications.



People Want Proof that Stores Are Taking Social Distancing Seriously.

Not only do clearly stated instructions tell customers what to do—they say a lot about what you’re doing behind the scenes of your business.


“(Professionally printed signage) matters a GREAT deal to me,” said one respondent. “It tells me that corporate is taking this seriously; it’s a reminder that the notice is coming from the top.”

Said another, “As this continues, people have choices and branding will make a difference. A company that takes the extra steps to look like they have their (act) together will make me choose them (even if it’s subconscious). If the signage looks cleaner, my brain sends the signal that (the business) is cleaner.”


See how that works? That’s the psychology of signage.



Clarity is Key – A Case for Overcommunicating.

When people are under stress or feeling anxiety, it compromises their ability to process a lot of information at once. Businesses should adopt an “early and often” style of communication, using clarity and repetition, and reiterating key messages (e.g. “Two per customer” or “One-Way Traffic”) throughout the store so customers aren’t required to use short term memory while navigating an already stressful situation.


To that point, a woman from Dallas, Texas, described her shopping experience: “(My local grocery store) has arrows on the floor, but I didn’t realize it as I speed shopped to my needed items. I went the wrong way in—and back out of—the same aisle and upset another shopper.”  


“I think professional floor signage clearly indicating what to do would be a big help,” said one respondent from Nashville, Tennessee. “The last time I was at (the store), they had blue painter’s tape at 6-foot intervals, but there was no signage to tell people they were supposed to stand (on the tape) and stay that far apart. People need ‘bright red handles’, so I think signage packages are a great idea and would certainly be comforting to me.”



Make Your Signs Impossible to Ignore.

The majority of people venturing out to essential businesses were those shopping for household groceries. Many expressed frustration with fellow shoppers who disregarded Covid-19 related signage.


Said one Nashville mom, “The signs are great. The people ignoring them are not.”

The lesson here may be that when it comes to Covid-19-related signage, bigger and bolder is better. Not only will your customers be more likely to see it—but their fellow customers will see them seeing it—making it more difficult (or embarrassing) to ignore. 



Consider Your Audience.

Another thing to remember as we are experiencing and responding to a pandemic is that emotions are running very high. Be sensitive not only to your customers’ needs and feelings—but to the context of your communications. While Covid-19 related signage can help people feel and be safer—it can also trigger a strong negative emotional response.


Said one woman, “For me, personally, professional signage makes (the Covid-19 pandemic) feel more ‘permanent.’ I don’t like the feeling it invokes.”


Another mom said, “The signs posted on the playground next to my house made me cry when I saw them, and it was because they were official looking. It really was a gut punch.”

Indeed, caution tape and a laminated “CLOSED” sign may not be the best way to say, “Hey, parents, this too shall pass.”  If you’re a local business that can control your own messaging, take a minute to consider your audience and “speak human” to them. An organic grocery store, for example, could tweak their signs to say, “Please Stay 6 Feet Apart. (We know this doesn’t feel natural. But Hang in There.)”



Signage is No Substitute for Best Practices.

It bears repeating that signage—professionally printed, or handmade—is not a substitute for following strict safety protocols. But once you’ve addressed the safety of your employees—and ensured that they are adopting best practices, signage can further help them—and your customers—stay safe.


As one respondent told us, “Signage is nice, but the only thing that puts me at ease is seeing employees with gloves and masks. That lets me know the store is actually taking this seriously.”