March 6, 2019

An exploration of visual indicators IRL — part II

Extending UX and interface design principles beyond digital products…again

A year ago, I published a list of observations about visual indicators that exist in the world around us. Similar to those in the digital world, these small visual cues communicate information to help us differentiate like-items. They help us understand and interact with our environment.

Since writing that article, I’ve been even more hyper-aware of visual indicators around me. For example, as I’m training for AIDS/LifeCycle, I frequently take spin classes. At a recent class, a first-time rider asked me how to tell which lockers are not being used. I told her locks that are vertical are open for use.

Thinking about this and other moments in the online and in-person experience, some objects are available to interact with while others are not. What visual marker causes me to interact with one object over another? Are there analogous indicators that exist in digital products? Where are the commonalities in treatment and communicated message?

Visual indicators in both the digital and physical world can use added iconography, color, and orientation to communicate a message.

User experience design principles transcend medium. Whether interacting with a doorknob or a button on an iPhone, we human beings look for visual cues that help us make better decisions. For this exploration, I wanted to share some recently-discovered visual indicators that exist in the physical world. Enjoy!


By definition, visual indicators help users quickly locate an item that has an important distinctive attribute among a group of similar objects. One example of a unique attribute is its intended function. Similar items may look the same but have different intended uses. Users look for markers to help identify which will meet their immediate need.

Item: Rideshare car

Indicator: Uber’s “Beacon”, a bluetooth-enabled windshield light with rider-specified color

Intended For: Prospective rider

Message: “This is the Uber that’s assigned to you!”

Note: Lyft’s “Amp” is a similar device that uses color to help riders locate their assigned cars.

Item: Key

Indicator: Rubber cap or cover

Intended For: Person trying to unlock something

Message: “This key opens the front door!”

Note: There are lots of crafty customization options that can achieve this same distinction.

Item: Electrical outlet

Indicator: Upside-down orientation

Intended For: Building residents

Message: “This outlet is controlled by a switch!”

Note: Though there is no code dictating proper outlet orientation, some electricians still do this to indicate a switch-controlled outlet. Another explanation is that the upside-down orientation helps promote better electrical safety.


When out in public, your eyes are drawn to products that attract you. But how can you tell what brand a particular shirt is? Rather than explicit logos, consumer brands often feature small markers on their products that exist to be noticed. In the words of Tomas Maier, former creative director at Italian luxury brand Bottega Veneta, “It’s about a whisper, not a shout”.

While some brand indicators are subtle, like Lululemon’s three stitches on shirts and shoes, others serve as bold markers of status. Interestingly, several use the eye-catching and bold color red.

Item: Jeans

Indicator: Little red tab (“Tab Device” as its legally known)

Intended For: Fashion-conscious consumers

Message: “These are Levi 501s. Jealous?”

Note: Levi’s iconic arc stitching on their back pockets, known as the Arcuate Design, was patented around the same time as the red tag though its design preceded the red tag by some 60 years.

Item: Apple Watch

Indicator: Red dial

Intended For: Technology-savvy consumers

Message: “This is the LTE model. Jealous?”

Note: Newer LTE models retain the same color but vary the visual treatment on the dial.

Item: High heel shoes

Indicator: Red sole

Intended For: Fashion-conscious consumers

Message: “These are Louboutin shoes. Jealous?”

Note: When he finally filed to trademark the design in 2007, Louboutin told a court “The shiny red color of the soles has no function other than to identify to the public that they are mine,” according to the New Yorker. “I selected the color because it is engaging, flirtatious, memorable and the color of passion.”

Other Notables

Entertaining, interesting, surprising, or obvious, these visual indicators also passively communicate information to a viewer. How do these markers influence the way they interact with something?

Item: Person

Indicator: Presence of a ring on the left ring finger

Intended For: Potential suitors or simply curious people

Message: “This person is married (or engaged).”

Note: Some people are more prone to checking ring fingers than others. Are you? 🤔

Item: Pokémon show episode

Indicator: The symbol on Ash Ketchum’s hat

Intended For: The viewer

Message (for example): “This Pokémon episode you’re watching is a part of the XY Series!”

Item: Casual-sex seeker (traditionally gay men)

Indicator: The position and color of a handkerchief in a back pocket

Intended For: Prospective sexual partners

Message (for example): “I am sexually dominant seeking a partner into S&M.”

Note: The Handkerchief Code, as it’s called, was thought to have originated in San Francisco after the Gold Rush.

Effective UX design depends on a thorough understanding of human behavior and psychology. How do people identify objects? How do people focus their attention? What motivates them to interact with something? The best digital products present information that caters to these innate behaviors.

When navigating the world, be aware of what the environment is communicating. Your conditioned powers of observation may surprise you. :)

This article was originally published to the UX Collective on Medium.

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