Sign Language: 6 ways to create effective signage

When was the last time you were in a distribution facility that posted attractive and effective signs? Like most of us, you probably couldn’t think of a specific example that impressed you enough to provoke an immediate response to this question. In most facility start-ups, the designers have to deal with too many other more pressing issues; instructive and informative signage falls pretty low on the priority list. Usually, building planners simply assume that the maintenance staff will take care of these details when time permits. Unfortunately, the result is often less than impressive and may lack the essential elements that are important to safe and productive operations.

Facility managers typically focus on meeting state- and federally mandated signage requirements, believing that once these are met, the task of sign posting is complete. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 provides only general guidelines for the minimum signage required to alert employees and visitors to potential danger or injury. It is left to the facility’s management to interpret these requirements and install signs that ensure the health and safety of the building’s occupants.

The main types of signs posted in fulfillment centers are those used for identification, instruction, safety alerts, stock location, and traffic; on occasion, special signs may be necessary. These sign classifications are not mutually exclusive — a sign may actually serve multiple uses. For instance, the sign in the battery charging room that reads “Caution: Use Rubber Gloves While Servicing Batteries” not only provides a safety alert but also includes operator instructions.

Often, if an architect has been involved in the design of the facility, appropriate external signage will have been provided. Examples include signs regarding the speed limit, traffic direction, parking areas, LPG tank storage area, fire protection systems, trash compactor/baler doors, and designated smoking areas.

  1. Identification

    These markers are particularly useful in orienting new employees and visitors to the various functional areas of the facility. Such signs also play a role in educating employees about the company’s terminology to avoid the confusion that comes from using various terms for the same area (e.g., receiving docks vs. unloading docks vs. inbound doors). Specialized work areas require readily visible signs to identify each discrete location (e.g., Full-Case Pick Module #3; Repack Pick Module #3; Slapper Area #2).

    Many of the terms used within fulfillment centers are not everyday phrases and often vary from one operation to another. Is the “break room” the same place as the “lunch room”? Is “cross-dock processing” part of the receiving or shipping dock operation? A well-conceived signage program can standardize such terminology within a facility, reducing the confusion that might result otherwise.

  2. Instructions

    Many signs used within a fulfillment center serve as reminders of standard practices. Examples include signs that read:

    • Pedestrians Walk Within Designated Aisle Markings
    • Receiving Office Hours: 7:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M.
    • Connect Battery-Charging Cables to Charger Before Leaving Area
    • No Riders Permitted on Fork Truck Equipment
    • Alarm Will Sound on Opening of This Door
    • Special Operator Permit Required to Operate This Equipment
    • Do Not Walk or Step on Grating Without Safety Harness

    Often, these injunctions remind employees of standard policy included in the company policy manual or in the employee’s initial training.

  3. Safety alerts

    These signs warn people about potential safety hazards or concerns. Standard ready-made signs are available from many sign manufacturers.

    These types of notices tend to be among the more popular since many are driven by local, state, or national building or construction codes, the most notable being those mandated by OSHA. Sign manufacturers offer such a wide variety of choices that some restraint on your part is required — too many signs can reduce the effectiveness of your signage program. Keep the message simple, and don’t overdo it!

  4. Stock locations

    Since nearly 75% of the space in a fulfillment center is used to store and pick inventory, it is important to establish a system that provides an “address” for each storage and picking location. Often this means dividing the facility into zones, aisles, bays, tiers, and shelf positions. This requires identifying each of these location attributes to provide clear visibility for all workers who store and retrieve product.

    Frequently, location identification systems incorporate both human-readable and bar-code-scannable information. You must select fonts and colors that enhance the readability of this critical information to allow operators to move readily to the designated physical location. Remember that not everyone has 20/20 eyesight. Although you may be able to read tiny type, don’t assume that a fork truck operator has perfect vision. Often the operator will be reading the location labels and signs from a distance.

  5. Traffic and pedestrian notices

    External traffic signs should be strategically placed to guide the flow of trucks and personnel vehicles from the entrance gate to the parking and truck dock areas. Signs at the entrance gate should display information about security, traffic regulations, and hours of operation. Special instructions about handling hazardous materials must be included if necessary. Identify building entrance doors by their use, such as “Truck Driver Entrance,” “Main Office Entrance,” and “Visitor Entrance.”

    Signs within the building direct the movement of fork trucks and pedestrian traffic. Restricted access areas must be clearly indicated as such. Major traffic aisles that are shared by mobile material handling equipment and pedestrian traffic require signage and floor striping designed to inform operators about the location of dedicated pedestrian and equipment aisles.

  6. Special signs

    A variety of other signs can be used to communicate information in DCs. If you employ people of various nationalities, consider posting multilingual signs and informational graphics. It is becoming more common these days to see signs in Spanish and multiple formats combined on signs, such as Braille or bar-coded information alongside or under standard text. Dedicated floor locations reserved for particular purposes need special signs, such as “Trash Collection Devices” or “Empty Pallets.”

Building exit signs are mandated by law and must be illuminated using batteries or radioisotope sources to ensure visibility in the event of power failure. In up-to-date facilities, computer-directed/electrified signs and wall-mounted computer screens provide real-time information to employees.


Introducing colors and graphics into signs can enhance the appearance of your DC. An icon or graphic symbol not only adds interest to the sign but also enables the reader to connect the information to a task — for example, add a drawing of a wrench to the “Maintenance Shop” sign to communicate the function of that work area better. Use standard international icons for places such as restrooms and non-smoking locations.

It is important to use proper judgment in determining where to post signs and how many you need to convey the intended information. Don’t miss the opportunity to obtain professionally designed signs from your major equipment suppliers as part of their procurement contract. For example, stipulate that the storage fixture contractor provide signs that specify the maximum pallet load or shelf load limits for which the racks have been designed. Be sure to define the number, location, placement, and method of attachment of these signs. Examples of such signs could include the following:

  • Maximum Pallet Load = 2,500 lbs.
  • Do Not Sit or Stand on Conveyors
  • Floor Load Limit = 125 lbs./sq. ft.
  • Max. Shelf Load = 500 lbs./shelf

If you design and post signs thoughtfully, you’ll provide continuous reinforcement of safe practices, so don’t be content with simply meeting government requirements. The initial investment needed to implement a full-scale signage program is negligible compared to the total outlay for a new facility, but it pays off year after year.

Frank W. Renshaw, P.E., is president and co-founder of Keogh Consulting Inc., and president of the Association of Professional Materials Handling Consultants. Renshaw may be reached at (561) 775-3833, ext. 14, and at [email protected].

OSHA specs for posting safety alerts

DANGER should be used in hazardous areas that may cause severe injury or death. The signal word panel should be red, black, and white with the word “DANGER” in white letters against the red background. The panel with the word message should be white with black letters.

CAUTION is used to indicate a hazardous situation that could result in minor or moderate injury. The signal word panel should be black with the word “CAUTION” in yellow letters. The panel with the word message should be yellow with black letters.

SAFETY INSTRUCTIONS relate to safe work practices, reminders of proper procedures, and safety equipment location. The signal word panel should be green with white letters. (Suggestions for possible signal words are “SAFETY FIRST,” “THINK,” and “BE CAREFUL.”) The panel with the word message should be white with black letters.

Wording of signs should be simple. In addition, ANSI Z535.2 recommends using a uniform and consistent visual layout with the use of pictograms.
Paul Conderino, product line manager, Seton Identification Products