Washing your hands, why you need to keep it simple

If you want your instructions to be followed, keep them simple!

Some posters catch your attention.  They may have something that really appeals to you, or it may be the reverse. Only a small number may  fit in either category.  As for the rest, well I cannot recall.  They are lost in the countless images that compete to attract a fleeting moment of our attention every day.

Adverts need to catch your attention

In this respect, posters are similar to television adverts. You either love them or hate them.  There is an annual competition “Best and Worst ads” on Television New Zealand. What is particularly noteworthy, is that some adverts appear in both categories, that is the best and the worst.  This means that a high proportion of the respondents feel strongly about these adverts, either positively or negatively.  You could argue that the advertising agency has done its job at it wants people to remember the advert and presumably the product that the advert is trying to sell.

What message are you trying to convey?

So what if you are not trying to sell anything?  What if you just have what might seem like a simple message, such as “wash your hands”?

Keep It Simple_Blog I visited three different universities in Auckland in the space of a few weeks and each time had cause to go to the toilet. Each time there were signs about “wash your hands”, but the posters were very different.  The image shows the simplest and the most complex of the three. I should stress that I do not normally take photos in a toilet, but like the good journalist, I could sniff a story, or in my case, a blog post.

The left hand image has four simple words that correspond to the four main steps:

  1. Soap
  2. Scrub
  3. Rinse
  4. Dry

An image accompanies each word to reinforce the message.  The headline “it only takes 20 seconds” is gentle and there is a nice pun: ” to get the upper hand on germs”.

The right hand image has nine steps, each with detailed instructions that are unlikely to be taken heed of. The whole tone is stern and not engaging. Turning four steps into nine adds complexity.  This has a number of adverse consequences:

  1. More difficult to read, as you have to absorb so much more information.
  2. More effort to read for the same reason.
  3. More difficult to remember.  What are these nine steps anyway and why so many?

Do note that the two posters serve the same purpose and are in the same environment.  One would expect more stringent standards in the kitchen of a restaurant and far higher still in an operating theatre.

What lessons can we draw from this?

Be very clear about what you are trying to convey and why?  You must also be clear about what action you want people to take or not take.  Here are some questions to pose:

  1. Are you giving a command? The STOP sign by an intersection is unambiguous.
  2. Are you giving a warning?  Tight bend ahead.
  3. Is this information? T-junction and sign post.
  4. Are you trying to give instructions on how to do something? Or is the emphasis more on the why?
  5. How much explanation is really needed?


“Let me show you” can address both the how and the why.  You also need to take account of the extent to which you need to remind as opposed to explain a unfamiliar task.

Many of us will remember being told off my our mother for not sitting at table with dirty hands.  You need to show a very young child how to wash their hands, but you should only have to remind an older child.

I will leave the last word or rather words to one of my favourite signs that you see all over France.  “Défense d’Afficher”, which means “post no bills”.  This example is rather controversial.

What poster do you love or hate the most and why?  Feel free to share this post.

Simon Fawkes
Accredited Mindshop Facilitator
Business to Markets Ltd

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