Proximity Matters

On a recent road trip, we drove past a sign that looked like something like this:

Image of a Road Sign showing two destinations with arrows pointing in opposite direction.

At first glance, it is hard to tell if Proximity is to the left or to the right; or if you should go right or left to get to Matters. Perhaps after a more careful look, you can figure it out, especially if you’re familiar with the territory, but it should be much easier. And it would be much easier if only the person who designed the template for this sign (and others like it I’m sure) understood how proximity can impact usability. defines proximity as “nearness in place, time, order, occurrence, or relation”. When two “things” are placed near to each other, it demonstrates a relationship. Understanding this principle is critical to good design.

Not all signs are like the one depicted above. A couple of good examples can be found here and here. This one is not so much of a good example.

So, back to the sign in question. Maybe this particular sign could be improved by using a line to separate the two city listings. That might help – what do you think?

Second version of sign listing two cities with arrows pointing in either direction.

I’ll admit that is a step in the right direction toward improving the readability of this sign. And this is a pretty common treatment if memory serves me correctly. But I think it could be better. This is a road sign meant to direct people driving in a car and needing to make a decision — usually a pretty quick decision. This is no time to provide ambiguous clues for the driver.

Confusion can be avoided by paying attention to proximity. In my opinion, the city name should appear next to the arrow that it belongs with. And the position of the arrow being next to the name instead of below/above it is what clarifies the relationship. Like this:

Third version of sign listing two cities with arrows pointing in either direction.

The same principles apply to interface design. Labels should be noted next to the item they describe; buttons should be positioned next to the fields they relate to; photos should appear next to the content they support.

This is a concept that is easy to get right and you don’t see many examples of poor use of proximity in the wild. But when you do come across one — like the one I saw on the side of the road — they really do stand out.

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  1. Gah, this is sort of a topic I’ve been meaning to tackle for years now. You’ve won this time, Mallott! *shakes fist*

    You bring up an excellent point, though. I was just mentioning to someone here at work how badly an IA needs to be unleashed on the design of public roadways and the accompanying signage. (We were actually stuck behind a car who had not realized — due to poor signage/placement — that he was in a left turn-only lane, but he wanted to go straight.) There appear to be patterns that public roads are supposed to follow, but some of them are ignored and some of them are just bad patterns. And sometimes it appears that signs just appear wherever someone thought was OK.

    Then there’s my nerdiest complaint ever — signs that use a one-off, different font. There is one going north on 75 (Legacy exit, I think, or Spring Creek) and every time I see it it makes me a little ticked off. :) Not a danger to public safety, but an annoyance nonetheless.

    You’d think that a system that is so potentially dangerous would be a little more careful about maintaining good wayfinding patterns. The last thing we need is people swerving all over the roadway because they can’t tell which fork leads to Proximity.

  2. chuck says:


    I have seen that exact sign for the exit to Spring Creek on 75 and I noticed the different font and wondered how or why it was like that. Funny.

    I will say that here in Texas they do a better job of sign placement on the road ways. Most of the time, at least, signs are placed well enough in advance for you to position your vehicle in the correct lane. In Norther Virginia/DC, it is not so. You get a lot less lead time when trying to exit a highway. I have missed my exit up there more times than I like to admit.

  3. Alan says:

    Poor sign placement and usability doesn’t both me as much as badly designed or inconsistent frontage roads. One of the best examples is again on 75 close to where Richardson turns into Plano. If traveling northbound and you need to get on the west side of the highway, you would think it would be as easy as exiting and turning left at the next intersection. Oh no, not here. You have to exit and then turn right on a hidden road, then do a turnaround to get on a bridge to cross the highway. This would be okay if this was the consistent means to cross the highway. As with most things this is not the case.

    The above is a good example of how most big products are designed over the years. It starts off with one set of designer/developers that think their way is the right way, then a few years later and some turnover the next set thinks their way is the best. Probably one of the better reasons to implement standards, because every industry needs them.