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The Psychology of Freeway Signs

February 11, 2019

Freeway signs might seem like fairly simple things to design and execute. However, the standardization of freeway sign design is actually more complex than you probably realize. Colors, shapes, and special material considerations for freeway signs are all specially formulated to make the road a safer place to be. Here’s a deeper look at the psychology behind freeway signs.

How the Brain Recognizes and Interprets Imagery

The human brain picks up thousands of messages every day even if you don’t leave your home, watch TV, or read text on a computer screen. These messages are stored away for future use even when the conscious mind forgets about them completely. Through repetition, a message becomes more memorable and connected with top of mind awareness.

But it isn’t just words that deliver messages that are filed away in the mind. The same principle applies to shapes, colors and images. The old saying “every picture tells a story” is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to exploring the psychology behind freeway signs. Even if a sign displays just text, it still forms a picture in a person’s mind. The more a sign is recalled in cognitive experiences, the more familiar it becomes, making the message more instantly understood.

Federal highway officials have utilized this process to ensure that freeway signs across the nation are instantly interpreted accurately by all drivers. Every driver typically learns these interpretations through repetition long before they study for their driver’s license exam. All motorists know what a stop sign means even from far away, thanks to the octagon shape and red color.

Color Psychology of Freeway Signs

At a young age kids learn color associations through both personal experiences and recognition patterns. Although it may be debatable as to what any color means from one individual to another, certain generalizations are established through education. The color red, for example, is widely interpreted as aggressive, but due to its eye-catching principles. It also conveys danger and a sense of alertness. That’s why stop signs are red.

Green, a color deeply engrained in human consciousness as warm and earthy, means “go” because of its distinct difference from red. In fact, green is positioned as the opposite on certain color wheels developed by scientists. Before cars and freeways even existed, the railroad industry introduced the concept that red means stop, yellow means caution, and green means go. They initially used white to mean go, but a change was needed due to train conductors confusing white lights with bright stars at night. Prior to the invention of electric lighting, they relied on kerosene lanterns.

Railroad companies also originally used yellow for stop signs since red was difficult to see in areas without sufficient lighting. But with the introduction of electric lighting and reflective materials, red was chosen to mean stop. Red has been associated with danger for centuries, partly due to having the longest wavelength among colors.

Standardized Freeway Signs

The evolution of color recognition in society has conditioned people to look for consistency when interpreting traffic signals. Metal signs with no electronic lights still communicate the same message with colors. Freeway mileage signs commonly use green backgrounds as a reminder to keep moving toward your destination. Although you rarely see red signs on freeways, this rarity stands out and draws attention quickly. Meanwhile, yellow signs are commonly understood to mean proceed with caution even without lights.

Questions about Freeway Signs? Call Today

Psychological research has played a major role in making road signage easy to immediately decode by drivers even from a distance, reducing confusion and accidents. Contact us at Zumar to find out more about freeway signs at our Arizona, California or Washington location.

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