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The difficulty of designing a truly intuitive information system

The difficulty of designing a truly intuitive information system

Sian Kelly, the Chairman of the Sign Design Society (SDS) and a director of The Velvet Principle, a wayfinding and experiential graphic design consultancy, wonders how well you really know yourHighway Code?


Sian Kelly President of the Sign Design Society

I recently had a little altercation with a cyclist while out walking along the Thames. On much of this stretch, there is a wide pathway that is shared by pedestrians and cyclists. There is just one little section where it splits round a building. A narrow, uneven flagstone pedestrian path hugs the riverbank in front of it. For cyclists, runners and anyone who wants to avoid the rampant nettles and a slow shuffle past oncoming traffic, a much wider, less rutted alternative skirts the outer perimeter.



sign giving order no cycling

Sign giving order no cycling

On this particular morning, as an approaching cyclist slowed to let me pass, in a genuine attempt to be helpful I pointed out the alternative. After all, if you knew there was an option that meant you wouldn’t need to stop or risk nettle rash for the price of a couple of metres, you’d take it … wouldn’t you?

From his response it was clear my intervention wasn’t taken in the spirit intended. I was advised that he was fully aware of the options and that cyclists had just as much right to use this path as walkers. This was reinforced with a triumphant exclamation as he checked the sign on his exit from the walkway.

Now here’s the thing – the sign, which our friend believed validated his right to cycle, actually means the opposite. The sign in question is the red circle with a black bike symbol in the centre. This chap was no pimply teenager, he was well into his middle age and had most likely been driving for decades, so, you could argue, should have known better. However I do have some sympathy for his error.



We (should) all know that within the Highway Code, the red circle denotes an instruction.  Probably the ones we see most often are the speed limit signs. A black number 40 in a red circle – we know that’s the maximum speed we can drive.  By implication it’s a sign that essentially permits drivers to travel up to the indicated speed.

Consider other more common instances:

  • A black and red car symbol next to each other – no overtaking
  • An arrow pointing to the right or left with a diagonal red line through it – no turning right/left.
  • Opposing arrows – one red one black – indicating traffic approaching from the red direction must give way.

Following the logic, a red symbol within the red circle – whether car, line or arrow indicates that something is not allowed, a black symbol that it’s allowed. If your highway code is a little rusty (or you’re too young to drive), it’s easy to see how a red circle with a black bicycle symbol could mistakenly be interpreted as meaning that cycling is permitted. This perception will not be helped by the numerous instances on public footpaths (or in other countries) where a red diagonal slash is added to indicate no cycling.

So what’s the answer? Ensuring you regularly brush up on the Highway Code?  I wouldn’t be so bold as to suggest that it needs a little update, but it’s interesting to see how many ‘no cycling’ symbols are qualified by a text based no cycling sign. As a reasonable proportion of cyclists will be children and teenagers that won’t have studied the Highway Code, this helps provide clarity.

What the incident does demonstrate is how challenging it can be to design an information system that is truly intuitive; how inconsistencies in application can lead to confusion.  It also illustrates how important it is to know your audience and cater accordingly.

For further information on the Sign Design Society, visit:

For further information on The Velvet Principle, visit:

right of way

Right of way


Sign giving order no right turn

No overtaking

No overtaking


Maximum speed

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