Chances are, you’ve never given much thought to the EXIT sign. It’s a ubiquitous icon in America for “this way to safety”, hanging familiarly in every public building. An article in Slate this month called question to the logic of the sign. After all, the rest of the world uses an emergency sign that is opposite in every way. Green instead of red, an image rather than text, the sign is an International Organization for Standardization symbol that most countries adopted years ago. It was created in the 1970s by a Japanese designer and selected by the ISO in 1985. Informally, it’s called “the running man.”
And doesn’t it make sense? The fact that it’s a pictogram means it can be understood in any language. The color green has historically represented safety, something to turn to when in danger. Red, in contrast, is typically the universal sign for “stop”, “alert”, or “don’t touch.”
The National Fire Protection Association established standards for America’s emergency exit signs in the 1930s and ‘40s. At that time, they didn’t consider the implications of creating a sign only in English. The NFPA says they update their code every three years, but they see no reason to switch to “the running man.”
In case you were wondering, EXIT signs are actually not required to be red by NFPA standards; they simply must have a certain amount of contrast between the text and background. In fact, our LED Exit signs with battery backup come in both red and green.
For now, it seems the EXIT sign will stay intact in the United States. It certainly is eye-catching and familiar, but apparently also distinctly American. Perhaps before long, “the running man” will make his debut.