Bathroom signage: Where symbols collide with culture

For the past few years, who should have access to what bathroom has been a topic of heated national debate. The focus is on the parts of a person USING the facilities, rather than the parts the facility CONTAINS — a fact that is reflected in signage across the country, largely signaling where the proprietor and the local culture come down on the issue.

The bathroom signage most common when I was growing up in Ohio in the 80s and 90s was the convention of the time: man, woman, handicapped (or handicap accessible). Your physical definition defined the space that was available to you.

But over the years, MANY social issues have expanded the types of signage we see around public space for private use: all genders/unisex/gender neutral, family, nursing, changing tables. In some cases, they have been added to the usual litany; in others, they replace them, reflecting changing attitudes of the community or state statutes.

For many, switching bathroom signage to ALL GENDERS or GENDER NEUTRAL is a distressing assault on their world view. For others, it’s a gesture of inclusion and acceptance they’ve been waiting for their entire lives. These are powerful symbols and actions that reverberate through communities; the mundane artifacts that define the structures of daily life.

Why does this matter to designers?

Because we make signage. We select the symbols, the colors, the words that help to reinforce community standards that impact people’s lives. In many cases, especially for something that has followed a fairly standard set of symbols over time, we often default to, well, the default. But those instances also offer us an opportunity to rethink how we’re inviting people to engage around complex topic.

What if, for example, we followed the lead of this biscuit shop in Seattle and used a wink and a nod that’s more playful and elevates etiquette over gender? (I think people of all political stripes can get behind the importance of hand washing.)

Or what if we moved away from defining physical characteristics and instead focused on the fixtures available in the space? As parents to a toddler, my husband and I are usually after one thing: a changing table. We go through the process of asking: Does the women’s room have one? Is it in the common area or the handicap stall? Does the men’s have one? Not only does this first push us through the gates of gender and able-ness, but the literal exploration of each bathroom (and often times, neither has one). What would be most helpful is a sign on the door that reflects what’s actually in there: urinal, commode, wheelchair access, sink, changing table, nursing station. It may be more symbols, but it also may be a more useful and culturally-neutral way to approach a very practical need.

The signage we choose won’t erase some of the issues and perspectives vexing our current cultural divide. But maybe, in the mundane, we have the chance to nudge cultural rifts into a different kind of discussion.

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