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It should be quite straightforward, you read the word and follow the instructions. But day after day I see people in my office coming to the door and pushing when they should pull or viceversa.

I'm wondering: What would be a good alternative way of representing Push/Pull, using visuals instead? This probably won't mean people will suddenly have an epiphany and instantly understand the instruction. I imagine there has to be a graphic that the brain understands faster than the sign with the words...

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13  
Put the opposite instruction on there. Now the people that always do the wrong thing, will now be doing the right thing. Then the people that actually read instructions will be screwed over, pleasing your inner anarchist. –  David Moore Jul 9 '13 at 23:23
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This is something that I think was discussed in the old classic The Design Of Everyday Things - if I remember right the gist was, the key is if it is to be pushed it should look like it invites being pushed, and vica versa - affordances, not symbolism –  user568458 Jul 10 '13 at 9:44
4  
Simple solution is to have doors that open in both directions, particularly in corridors. –  Brendon Jul 10 '13 at 11:30
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I know it is off topic, but generally, there are building codes which specify the way that commercial building entrance doors open: in the US, they must open outwards. Doors which open inwards are a death trap in a fire or other emergency: the press of the crowd behind makes it impossible for the doors to be opened. –  horatio Jul 10 '13 at 13:52
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relevant. –  zzzzBov Jul 11 '13 at 18:57

18 Answers 18

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Based on pretty much all the activity and input on this question, and particularly Takkats examples, I think the perfect message consists of three parts, in order of how they'd be noticed:

  1. Colours - Fastest Impact. Red for Stop. To pull a door open we must stop and change. Green for Go. To push a door open we keep going with our momentum.
  2. Big Graphical Direction Indicator - I think Scotts arrows are good as they have perspective, so it doesn't point up and down, it point towards and away from you.
  3. Textual Instruction - The original push and pull will make the message crystal clear.

Here's a basic example:

Push and Pull Signs

Of course the other considerations are size and placement. I would experiment with basic DIY prints at a few sizes and definitely put them between shoulder and eye level.

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Even though there were answers with more votes, this is the one that I think addresses the issue of graphical representation better. The drawings are clear, they are pointing in the best direction from the person's points of view and they have the support of color. –  Yisela May 2 at 1:45

I think this is a physical design / interaction design problem, not a graphic design problem.

If a door has a handle on it, I think a lot of people are naturally going to try and pull on the handle.

Therefore, push side should not have a handle, and the pull side should have one.

Push side could have a palm print graphic if necessary to show where to push.

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I must disagree with the first sentence. It is a design problem, but the solution can be a physical interaction or graphic design. The OP has asked for a graphic design solution, the benefits of which are that it is cheaper and easier to retrofit. The question is not how would you design a door from scratch, but what indications would you put on a preexisting door. –  trav1s Jul 10 '13 at 4:43
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This is the real-world answer regardless of the original intent of the question. Many such doors are glass, and any sort of graphic on them will be readable from either side. Try putting "PUSH" in letters on a door, and you will see many people reading the word reversed and STILL following that direction. I have been with people who joke aloud about their own perceived idiocy doing exactly this. –  horatio Jul 10 '13 at 13:55
    
The trouble is, it doesn't matter what signs you put on a door, because everybody knows how a door is supposed to work and will just do whatever it looks like they should be doing. So in the long run, it's probably still much more effective to fit the right type of handles to existing doors. –  scottishwildcat Jul 10 '13 at 14:03

Purely off the top of my head.......

Simple door icons?

doors

Or perhaps doors with arrows?

arrow doors

arrows

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9  
The third pair looks cool, but is far less clear. (+1 for the middle set, btw.) –  luser droog Jul 10 '13 at 4:23
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I genuinely wonder whether the these items will subconsciously prompt users to do "the right thing". Thumbs up for 1 and 2. Must have been researched before... –  Grimace of Despair Jul 10 '13 at 8:05
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If people don't read a word to figure out whether to push or pull, why would they pay attention to a picture? –  Anthony Jul 10 '13 at 13:07
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@Anthony People ignore the word "push" because the door has a handle and looks like it should be pulled. No reason to look for a word when it already seems clear what you should do. But these icons immediately put an image in your head of what to do, even if you just barely glance at them. "Push" and "Pull" don't do this because they look too similar to automatically generate different reactions. You have to actually read and understand them. –  Jeff Burka Jul 10 '13 at 13:15
    
#2 looks like an optical illusion to me, either a Blivet or impossible object style illusion where it changes meaning, flip flopping between out and in. Why not just use one arrow for forward, and an arrow point back where the user came from for pull? –  AthomSfere Jul 11 '13 at 0:28

Building on David Moore's palm print idea... The best graphics don't require much parsing at all. Icons representing the way the door swings require a translation into the action needed to achieve that effect. So let's show 'em exactly what we want them to do.

Push: An open hand.

Life-size, probably a bit bigger, placed on the door in the location you expect them to put their hand. Think "place palm here" scanner graphics.

Pull: A hand on a handle.

A highly-visible graphic behind or beside the door's actual handle which demonstrates the hand-position needed to use the handle. Again, larger than life. (I'm thinking of the 90s computer game Riven, and its hand-based interaction cursor graphics.)

Make 'em big and obvious.

Telegraph the action needed well before the person arrives at the door. Contrasting colors, thick lines, larger than life.

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Instead of human hands, use cat paws instead, and you have my vote! Just kidding (kind of), you have my vote. –  David Moore Jul 9 '13 at 23:58

I think adding people to the image helps a lot:

enter image description here

Source: pushpullsigns.com

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With the bent door, it appears to represent failure to accomplish the action. :) –  luser droog Jul 11 '13 at 16:25
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Yeah, my first reaction to the icon on the left is "look at that idiot trying to push a door the wrong way" –  Random832 Jul 11 '13 at 17:34

This is one thing I never get right when I travel abroad. PUSH or PULL simply look too similar to get the meaning at first glance. After I have to mentally translate it first I only have a 50% chance to get it right by the time I reached the door.

Let me make an experiment with a likewise hard example of widely used door signs from Germany (deliberately not displayed inline for a better effect):

click to show a bad German PUSH/PULL sign
Image source: Amazon.de

You will also not get this in time unless you knew what the colors are for.

But there is a better alternative:

click to show a better German PUSH/PULL sign
Image source: Amazon.de

In case you found out now what "drücken" vs. "ziehen" mean, you will also see that the arrows used here had done their job well.

The colors help a bit as the door with a green sign is open in the direction you go through, whereas the color red indicates you will have to stop first and make a movement in the other direction to open the door. But this may not really be intuitive enough.

The doorsigns I fail least are those with arrows, more than words or colors only. So I vote for an arrow design.

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The icons should be placed at eye-level, not at hand-level. This is usually an issue with glass doors, as people look through the glass door when approaching rather than down at the handle.

This is also a problem with bathroom doors with busy/free indicators. They too should be at eye-level rather than below the handle, and they should be large enough to be visible from a few meters away.

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We can solve this problem with hardware.

The push side of the door should have no door handle or knob which can be grasped or pulled, so that it can only be pushed.

The pull side of the door can have a novel door knob which I just invented for the purpose: a ball which dangles on a short piece of cable, which is just rigid enough to keep the ball an inch away from the door's surface that it may be easily grasped.

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Based on the assumption that most people would recognise this arrow as pointing forward:

enter image description here

You could do something quite pictorial, like this:

enter image description here

Although I haven't tested it in real life, I did just ask someone sitting next to me what they meant, and they said "one means push, and the other means pull", without any prompting, so that's a good start :)

Combined with the red/green colour scheme in other answers, this seems like it could work well.

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Having a mathematical background, I'd use these two symbols, although I'm not sure they'd be easily recognized by the general public:

enter image description here

They represent the two directions orthogonal to the piece of paper. They depict an arrow seen from the back and from the front.

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3  
Welcome to GD.SE! I upvoted for a clean solution and a clever answer...but I don't have a mathematical background and I didn't see it. I'd imagine that seeing an 'X' would throw people off too. Maybe you could use this as an 'entrance exam' to a school of mathematics :) –  Brendan Jul 10 '13 at 19:10
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That's a cool little fact, and I really hope it comes up as a question during trivia night sometime; but that is so ridiculously obscure it's more or less useless for an abstract representation in graphic design. –  Eric Jul 10 '13 at 19:13
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@Brendan: Awesome. Reminds me of this. –  naught101 Jul 12 '13 at 4:38
  1. Curved arrows could work.
  2. An image of a person pushing/pulling as seen from a side
  3. Photo of a person opening the door
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Horizontal push and vertical pull handles on doors make signs unnecessary.

Don't add a sign. Fix the door!

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  • In my university the doors which should be pushed have a white dot in the area of the handle. The ones without the dot are to be pulled. The dot is above the handle and has a diameter of circa 7 cm (~ 3").
  • Curves on streets have right/left angle brackets to indicate the direction (<< / >>). One could use up and down brackets to indicate front/back. It would be, kind of intuitive and still decent - depending where you apply it.
  • Coloring doors to indicate push/pull has some drawbacks since some people are color blind, or the used colors don't fit together with the other colors used in that particular environment. An approach would be using contrasts, i. e. dark colors for pushing, light colors for pulling. Dark and light is related to the other colors/color atmosphere in the environment of the door. In an 'blue' enviroment the colors would be light blue and dark blue. Even color blind people could see the difference in contrast from distance (I guess).

And another - kind of utopic - point without visual representation

  • Establishing some kind of social contract. E. g. For doors consisting of two seperate doors: Right doors should always be pushed, left ones should be pulled. But this process would take time
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I find that depicting the actual action helps people relate. One can depict a horizontal rectangle as the object (e.g. a handle) that the action is being applied to, and an arrow in the direction of the force/movement.

Below, the white arrow is placed onto rectangle in order to imply to the viewer that force/movement needs to be applied onto the object.

The darker gray arrow is depicted as in parallel (e.g., as if stuck) with the rectangle to imply that the force needs to be applied to the the object. An alternate way of depicting this can be to have the dark gray arrow wrap around the rectangle, indicating the need to grasp something and apply force/movement in that direction.

To Pull or to Push?

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The last option is definitely great! –  Yisela Jul 11 '13 at 23:09

This is one of my pet hates.

Yes, you are right in that people must "get it" before they get to the door, preferably the clues would be so clear that we do not even notice that we notice. Doors are supposed to just work. We need to find what to do, and where to do it: the door should give clues. Feedback before the action so to speak.

The problem of course, is that the doors are designed already broken. This is at the bottom a question of an interaction design problem that we try to fix later by graphic design. Never a good solution, but sadly extremely common. The world is full of examples like this; some sort of operation and human input and action are needed, and the buttons, displays, feedback or lack thereof gets us stuck in the most mundane and stupid situations.

Doors come in a lot of different configurations; there are doors that swings both ways, automatic sliding doors, glass doors where there are no clues as to where the hinges are, revolving doors, handles to twist, handles to push down and then pull or push the door, bars across the door to push or pull (these often gives no clue as to which side the doors open). And most disconcerting: doors that swings in or out automatically. If you are a little fast there, you risk getting the door hitting you in the face.

Generally, doors swing out from a room or a building so as to not trap people in a fire. But this is not always the case.

  • If possible, remove the handle from the side where pushing is to take place.
  • Red as a colour seems to me a bad idea: red = stop, no access. I am not opposed to words or arrows as such, but colour coding red-green is not a good idea.
  • Personally, I think that images of what is not there would often do the trick. You could simply draw a palm or pawprint on the push-side, even if it has a handle.
  • You could also take it further, and this would be an interesting experiment: a fairly large, maybe humorous graphic of someone holding a door open. The appropriate way for that side of the door. You would give a clue and at the same time indicate gallantry :D

enter image description here

This, I think, however is the best solution:

enter image description here

At my local library, they have two double, sliding doors. Being enormously child friendly, the outer doors are decorated with childish drawings of animals with big goggly eyes. Curiously: these eyes point left, right and centre. People have trouble with where the doors open, and I think that if all goggly eyes pointed to the centre of sliding, problem would be solved. Brilliantly, at the moment they have trouble with the mechanics of the outer door, and there is a notice "if the door is slow/stuck, help by pulling". There is nothing to pull with. So you get people stuck, desperately trying to pull with sticky palms. Architects FTW.

There is a classic story from Donald Norman, where a friend got stuck between double glass doors, as there was no intuitive, logic or informative way of getting out. He expands on this quite a bit in the book The design of everyday things

Here is the basic story:

My friend pushed on the side of one of the leftmost pair of outer doors. It swung inward, and he entered the building.

Then, before he could get to the next row of doors, he was distracted and turned around for an instant. He didn't realise it at the time, but he had moved slightly to the right. So when he came to the next door and pushed it, nothing happened. "Hmm,"he thought, "must be locked."So he pushed the side of the adjacent door. Nothing. Puzzled, my friend decided to go outside again. He turned around and pushed against the side of a door. Nothing. He pushed the adjacent door. Nothing. The door he had just entered no longer worked.

He turned around once more and tried the inside doors again. Nothing. Concern, then mild panic. He was trapped! Just then, a group of people on the other side of the entranceway (to my friend's right) passed easily through both sets of doors. My friend hurried over to follow their path.

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For me the Flat Hand v Gripped Fist.

Or better still check out a MC D's restaurant and do the opposite.

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design it in such a way on Push side, the door has to open once you pull it and leave the handle and vice versa...

if this is not possible David Moore's idea seems to be a good one

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As a person that ALWAYS seems to push when I should pull, or pull when I should push, let me say that the one building I didn't have this problem was in 111 8th Street in NYC where the wrong door had a red sign and the right door had a green sign. It didn't matter much what the sign actually said: red means "wrong". My visual response is color first, writing second.

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As mentioned in the comments above, some people are red/green colorblind. This suggestion won't help them. –  Lauren Ipsum Jul 10 '13 at 12:25

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