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Consider the current safety information card aboard the American Airlines Boeing MD-80. It's a large, trifold brochure with four full-color pages of pictograms and one page of dense, small text (almost exclusively in English) attempting to explain aircraft safety features and provide instructions in the event of an emergency. Although the format is quite common (more examples: Delta, JetBlue), I question its effectiveness in imparting this critical information. Looking at the card is overwhelming. The amount of information presented and the confusing nature of the pictograms could easily cause anyone's eyes to glaze. How can this be improved so the design is more visually appealing and the communication is more effective?

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closed as too broad by DA01, Matt Obee, Koen Lageveen, msanford, Benny Skogberg Aug 20 '13 at 21:28

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2 Answers 2

I would probably think of it more in the lines of 'How can we simplify airplane safety information cards', as risky it may sound when you are talking about information regarding safety (where it might seem that less is less, and not more).

One thing I believe the MD-80 card is doing right is by separating the different instructions into groups, but this can probably be taken a fit further.

Something that I think makes these cards look busier than they are is the lack of text. I'm honestly not sure if this is the reason for it, but I'm guessing it's because the card needs to be easy to understand in any language. I would believe adding text (in the airline's language, for example) would just make them more confusing to those who do not speak it.

It's definitely tricky to represent instructions without being able to verbally explain the actual instructions. The JetBlue card has one instruction (the life vest one), in English (main) and in Spanish (secondary). I would imagine a plane leaving a Spanish-speaking country would choose this sort of explanation. You have the instruction in the widest spread language, the airline language as a fallback, and the graphics as support.

More airlines are using videos now, but the card must still be a requirement.

There's not much you can do to make the pictures easier to understand (they have to look more or less realistic because putting on an oxygen mask requires that level of detail), so I would definitely work on the text. Text + graphics can make for a much better design.

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You asked how these can be improved to be visually appealing and not cause people's eyes to glaze over.

I agree that the information is densely packed, and the cards lack eye appeal.

I would argue that the limitations placed upon the designers would tend to produce designs that favor:

  • density over white space
  • illustrative, detailed drawings over minimalist or gestural images
  • function over aesthetics

The designers are limited to a one-page, 2-sides, paper format to cover almost every safety scenario a traveler can encounter, and guide them to take appropriate action. Sometimes the traveler will be illiterate, pre-literate, or won't speak the language. In some emergencies they will be without power or light, and in most emergencies they will not be functioning at their best due to the stress of the situation.

Aircraft are designed to carry large numbers of people for long distances. It must be available to every passenger, in every seat. It must be light and small to meet weight restrictions.

It must make clear * with images only* what you need to do in case of an emergency. There is plenty of intentionally hidden functionality on-board: the seat cushion flotation device, the oxygen mask behind the little panel, the proper direction to turn that huge handle to open the door. Even the difference between infant life vests and adult ones.

It must be scannable so that you can recognize the scenario from the ones before you. You have a two-sided, one-page laminated card in your hand and you need to do something to survive. You are going to scan the card to find a situation similar to the one you find yourself in. Imagery of fire, water, oxygen masks will help you find the instructions you need.

Visual explanations are clearer and more concise than written instructions. Detailed visuals leave less room for ambiguity than clean line drawings. If someone wants to take on the challenge of cleaning up these cards and making them more aesthetically pleasing, there is room for that, as long as no meaning is lost.

I think the drawings themselves, the layout, and the relative sizes of each element have the most room for improvement.

Looking at the entire user experience touches on aircraft design (or retrofitting), flight crew training, seat selection, and passenger orientation.

When the passenger selects their seat, it should be clear that they are picking an exit row seat. There are additional responsibilities with that choice. Maybe their ticket or boarding pass carries some of the door and slide operating graphics.

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