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Can I Assemble This if I’m NOT Drinking Wine?

by David Ham | July 13, 2017


All too often, businesses send very confusing messages to their customers (and prospective customers).

If you’ve seen the movie “A Christmas Story” (and with TBS running a 24-hour marathon of it every year there’s a chance you have), you might recall that a critical scene in the movie is when the father receives and sets up the tacky lamp that is his “major award.” When the crate is delivered containing the mystery prize, it’s labeled “FRAGILE” but the father excitedly mispronounces it as “FRA-GEE-LAY” and thinks it’s something Italian.

I was reminded of that recently when a large box appeared in my manager’s office, containing her new white board. Like the “major award”, it was labeled fragile:

The “fragile” and “do not drop” messages were clear enough, but what was interesting was the variety of symbols on it. It’s possible that someone who cannot read English, French, or Spanish, would handle the box and not understand the printed text. In that context, symbols that convey clear messages are important. Most everyone in the US would recognize an eight-sided red sign on the road as meaning stop, for example, even if they see it from a distance before getting close enough to read the sign. However, some of the symbols on this box may be less obvious and provide opportunities for creative interpretation.

The first and last symbols are two arrows pointing up. One thought was that the box could serve as a trampoline. I’m guessing it means “this end up” but I’m not entirely sure. The rectangle that seemingly represents the box, combined with the direction of the arrows, would imply that the larger flat side faces up. That would directly contradict the “this end up” message elsewhere on the box. Ok, that’s confusing.

The second symbol looks like a wine glass. There was no wine glass in the box so it’s not a picture of the product contained therein. Does that mean they recommend drinking prior to or during installation? Apparently, this is another way of telling us the product is fragile (emphasis on the word “apparently”).

The third symbol was my favorite. It shows a cube floating above two hands. My immediate thought was that the product inside can levitate. That would be fun and exciting. Presumably the white board wouldn’t need to be wall-mounted since it floats. Or maybe this means it can be tossed back and forth. My educated guess is that the picture means “handle with care.” But I’m one of those people who touches something I’m trying to handle with care, without tossing it in the air.

Next came the umbrella. It is a big box and might provide a little protection if held over one’s head in the rain. But the cardboard would deteriorate quickly. My best guess is that the box should not be left in the rain. Let’s go with that.

Then we have the two people who appear to be engaged in a tug-of-war over the box. More likely this means that it requires a “team lift” for safety reasons. Of course, it arrived on a truck where a single driver delivers it.

Finally, we get to one symbol that has the ubiquitous circle with the line through it. You probably all know that means, “don’t”. The question is, “What don’t we do with it?” Don’t use it as a snow plow? Oh, don’t move it with a fork lift. That makes more sense.

Several of us at CFI Group have had fun with this. But all too often, businesses send very confusing messages to their customers (and prospective customers). Articles of clothing often have tags with mysterious symbols about laundering. (How many people associate triangles with bleach? Are the pyramids sending us an ancient message about cleaning?) A certain retailer is known for providing only visual directions for furniture assembly that aren’t always clear to non-engineers like myself. Government agencies provide documentation about program benefits or requirements that are written using language their employees understand, but that many of the citizens they serve do not. And how many of us actually read through all (any?) of the disclaimers before affirming, “I have read and accept these conditions…” when installing software?

If your customers don’t understand what you are trying to tell them, they may look elsewhere to someone with a clearer message. CFI Group can help assure you have the right messages that drive satisfaction, loyalty, and positive word of mouth recommendations.

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