Making messages that are understandable and noticeable

sign Bathurst St

I’m fascinated by why it is that some people notice and understand messages and other people miss them.

Yesterday, a new customer walked into my shop and ordered a coffee and some breakfast. After placing his order, he quietly offered me some feedback about our signage:

‘I’ve been working over the road for several weeks, and I’ve been wondering about what you do in here. From your sign, I couldn’t work it out. I didn’t know that I could just come in here and buy a coffee. The sign doesn’t make it clear that you’re a normal café.’

I quite like our sign, and I think that it captures our business pretty well. But there’s no right or wrong answer here: for this potential customer, our sign didn’t work. And that’s both interesting and a problem.

As a communicator, I need to resist the temptation to respond to communication challenges from a position of knowledge: ‘No one reads anything carefully! It’s perfectly clear, if you just read the words!’.

If I want to communicate a message, it’s my problem to figure out how to design the message in a way that makes it clear and understandable. It’s also my job to figure out whom I want to reach and how to structure my message so that it makes sense to my particular audience.

My current thoughts on our sign go something like this:

  • There is no dominant model for understanding this business, because it’s not a normal café and not a normal conference venue; there’s no neat box to put this business into
  • There are several different aspects to this business, and it’s challenging to pull out one thing to promote
  • Much communication works through repeated exposure … so maybe my sign demonstrates its success because this new customer wondered about us enough to finally come inside and try us out
  • No communication can appeal to everyone, and maybe it’s OK that my sign doesn’t make sense to everyone
  • Communication needs to work in context, including the regulatory environment that stipulates the types of signs that can be put on buildings in residential areas – these issues guided every decision behind that sign.

I’ve done previous research looking at how people make decisions about what to read and what to pay attention to.

I’m aware that, in most situations, people don’t know and don’t care about the topic communicators seek to promote. I’m also aware that potential readers make several trade-offs as they make that rapid decision about whether to pay attention. They consider the author responsible for the message, the topic being covered, their level of interest or involvement with the topic, their impression of whether this message is relevant/appealing/interesting/appropriate, and their general disposition about receiving messages at this time.

This communication thing, it ain’t simple.