28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part VI

Red and green = stop and go. Red and blue = hot and cold.

Colors signify a variety of warnings in different cultures. Most commonly, in a majority of the world’s countries, red and blue are assigned respectively to hot and cold faucet handles. This color coding system is quite important, as an unexpected blast of hot water can do some damage.

Red and green, when used side by side, distinguish between two entirely different ideas. Obviously they’re used as traffic signals, but also on appliances to warn when a lock is open or closed, when a user can safely activate, dismantle or perform other operations on a piece of equipment.

I used an electric coffee pot every morning while working in Japan. It quickly heated water to boiling temperature, and had a pump button on top for dispensing the scalding liquid. A sliding lever near the button closed and opened the spigot, signaling its current state with one of two colored dots: red or blue.

I had assumed the blue dot meant the water was cold, and the red meant it was time for coffee (or tea, being in Japan and all). One day I went into the office hoping for a cup, found the blue dot showing, and decided to wait a while. An hour went by, and still no red dot. As I was waiting, a coworker came in, filled her cup with piping hot water, steam flowing from her mug and everything, and walked off. Confused, I took a look at the dot. Still blue! How hot did it have to be to register as hot?

As I’m now aware, temperature had nothing to do with it. The colors corresponded to whether the button could be pressed or not. My coworker had simply opened the spigot, poured her water, and closed it again before leaving the room, further contributing to my confusion.

Of course I was in a different country, but considering the similarities between American and Japan, especially regarding our technology and information systems, this oversight doesn’t make any sense to me. Using blue to signal a closed spigot on a heater that brings water to a fast boil, when users can easily read it as containing cold water,  is dangerous and irresponsible. Designers need to understand instinctual user responses to simple color combinations such as these before releasing a product like this on the public.

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