The Exit Sign
This piece was written for Rob Walker’s Narrative Strategies for Objects project as part of the 2019 Design Writing and Research Summer Intensive, and published in Overlooked/Underappreciated, an examination of the minutiae of quotidian life.
Despite their ubiquitous presence in everyday life, exit signs are designed for disaster, and in New York City specifically, this design has rules. While most municipalities follow the guidelines for exit signs issued by the National Electric Code (NEC), the New York City Building Authority produces their own additional requirements, rendering the majority of manufactured exit signs unusable. This requires New York contractors to purchase specific signs to remain up to code, and most exit sign wholesalers have separate sections for New York City compliant signage.
While national standards for exit signs allow several color variations, like white letters on a green background, New York City’s design uses a sharply contrasting red EXIT in a white rectangle. Letters must also be eight inches tall with strokes that are one inch thick, putting them slightly larger than the NEC’s six inches with a three-quarter inch stroke. When emitting light, the EXIT needs to glow red.
As common as this design may appear, though, it has had its competitors. In 1974, the US Department of Transportation collaborated with AIGA to create a collection of pictograms for use in train stations and airports. While symbols for restaurants, shopping, drinking fountains, and bathrooms caught on, the design for exits (a vertically split circle with a line of space between its two halves) never stuck. Yet in many other countries, Yukio Ota’s green graphic of a stick figure fleeing through a door (designed in the late seventies) became a popular replacement for word-based exit signs.
While exit signs exist to usher New Yorkers to safety from a number of crises, like mass shootings and power outages, they are chiefly designed with one emergency in mind: fire. However, standard procedures were not set into city law until 1911, after 146 workers (many of whom were young immigrant women) perished in the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire. Although many of these deaths occurred because the factory managers locked workplace doors, the building’s exits were not clearly marked. In the cascade of regulations that followed, and as New York City’s population increased, exit signs became mandatory in all public and commercial buildings.
For those who work and live in the city’s many skyscrapers, however, exit signs present a catch: unless a fire is in your office or apartment, it is actually safer to follow a “shelter in place” protocol, because advances in fire-resistant materials can thwart flames’ advancements. After the collapse of the burning Twin Towers, however, New Yorkers are not always convinced by this counterintuitive advice. Unfortunately, after a fire erupted in a Hell’s Kitchen highrise in 2014, a man followed an exit sign to his death when he died of smoke inhalation in the stairwell. Since the flames were contained on the same floor in which they had started, his apartment was ultimately unharmed.
There is a touch of the uncanny in the New York City exit sign, a quotidian object that, in an emergency, can be a guide to safety or an unreliable siren, depending on your floor of residence. They speak to the remarkable vibrancy of the built environment, when, at its most extreme, design and safety protocol can make the difference between life and death.