Open? Close?

Below you see a familiar sight; the “open door” and “close door” buttons found in the elevators of many downtown office buildings:

Maybe it’s just me, but I can never figure out which button to push. To be precise, by the time I figure out which is the correct button, it’s too late. The reason is that my brain cannot decode the symbols because I don’t know if they represent the state of being or the state of desired being. Also, there is the complicating factor of the visual representation of openness and closedness implied by the triangles if thought of as nouns, versus the opposite message implied by the triangles if thought of as arrows, or verbs.

Take the one on the left. It shows a line in the middle (presumably representing the seam between the closed doors) and a pair of triangles pointing to the seam. To me, this can mean:

  • The door is currently open, so I should push the button if I desire it to be closed. (The triangles are arrows, indicating what will happen if I push the button.)
  • The door is closing (moving in the direction of the arrows) so I should push this button now if I want to change the state and make them open. (The triangles are arrows indicating the current state, which is not necessarily the desired state.)
  • Push this button to put the doors into a state of being open. (The triangles are not arrows; their flat ends represent the edges of the door. As such, the symbol on the left implies wideness, or a state of the doors being open).

Similarly, the one on the right can mean:

  • The door is currently closed, so I should push the button if I desire it to be open. (Again, the triangles are arrows, indicating what will happen if I push the button.)
  • The door is opening (moving in the direction of the arrows) so I should push this button now if I want to change the state and make them close. (Again, the triangles are arrows indicating the current state, which is not necessarily the desired state.)
  • Push this button to put the doors into a state of being closed. (The triangles are not arrows; their flat ends represent the edges of the door. As such, the symbol on the right implies the edges of the door are close together, or in a state of being closed).

There’s no need to explain to me what the symbols really mean. If I think about it, I come to the conclusion that the one on the left means “close the door” and the one on the right means “open the door.” But its one of those things that never gets processed beyond short term memory, so when I’m in an elevator and the doors are closing and somebody comes rushing up to it from the outside, I have to go through all these mental gymnastics all over again, every time. Similarly, when I’m standing there and the door is taking forever to close, it ends up closing by itself before I can figure out which button to push.

For this reason, I always go right to the back of the elevator, as far away from the console as possible. That way, when someone rushes up to the closing door, I just shrug because I couldn’t reach the button in time anyway. Unfortunately, people probably think I’m doing that just to avoid letting them in.

So I come off as an elevator meanie, when in fact I’m just a regular guy with an overly analytical and somewhat defective brain.

19 thoughts on “Open? Close?

  1. the triangles are ARROWS.

    All buttons in any machine have a single purpose: ACTION

    The rest falls into place.

    Now if you’ve ever wondered why the UP light is green and the DOWN light is red, you should read THE DRAGONS OF EDEN by Carl Sagan. Brilliant!

  2. Dave, that’s fine. I know that now because I already figured it out. But in three day’s time, when I’m in an elevator, I’ll have forgotten again. And even if I remember that they’re arrows, do they indicate the current state or the desired state?

    It’s all split second stuff. When I’m in an elevator, the last thing I’m thinking about are the buttons. Then I see someone rushing for the door and I look down in a rush and see a huge array of buttons. Ahhh! Decode! Decode! All kinds of weird stuff rushes through my head and then I hit the wrong button. D’oh!

  3. I do the same thing. I KNOW what the arrows mean, and I KNOW which one I should press, but when it comes time to actually press the correct button, my brain freezes and I get all in a tizz about it. This usually results in the door closing in someone’s face and me feeling like an idiot.

    I just chalk it up to getting old – and being a cranky old biddy who doesn’t like to share elevators anyway.

  4. Then you must focus young grasshopper :) Besides, if the person doesn’t get the elevator, the person will get the next one, no harm no foul.

  5. Oh I *always* experience a delay in processing those two damn buttons. I quickly envision the trajectory of arrows or triangles were they to move, and then I know. But always the delay, there is.

  6. Press your desired floor, let the process take over and fuggedaboudit.

  7. Usually when I have the elevator to myself, I do what a friend once showed me. You dive for the console and press some imaginary third button. Then shrug to the person left standing on the other side. At least you don’t look inconsiderate. I suppose you could just dive for the close button, but I can’t process the difference that quickly either.

  8. I wish I would have posted earlier. It’s an entertaining post.

    However, you don’t press the button corresponding to the current floor you’re on now do you? So when it comes to the state of the doors…? Well hopefully the point is clear.

    Blork’s Quantum Elevator problem could very well replace that annoying quantum cat that I’ve probably killed in continuing moments since it first entered my mind.

  9. I do the EXACT same thing. Why don’t they put an icon of two hands apart and two hands clasped? That would do it for me.

    I get these same kinds of feelings of panic with IQ tests where you’re being asked “What is the next logical shape . . .” and only have five seconds to figure it out.

    Guess we’re both top-brained.

  10. Oh, and another thing you might try: the close icon looks like it’s angry — the person trying to get in the elevator will be “angry” if you push it — and the open icon looks like it’s “sad” — you’ll be sad if you let the angry person on the elevator.

  11. Yeah. I can’t agree more. Elevator “consoles” are so badly designed. I use the elevator at work many times a day for several months now, and still can’t quickly figure out which button will keep the door open :-)

  12. When do buttons ever represent the current state but not the desired one? That would be like the button marked “play” doing the thing that the stop button conventionally does.

    I tend to think that there’s more delay in finding the buttons in the first place than deciding which one to push. Sometimes they’re at the top, sometimes the bottom, different shapes and colours, sometimes words and sometimes symbols, sometimes open/close and sometimes close/open, vertical or horizontal, maybe with the “emergency stop” button in between. Once I’ve actually located the damn things it’s usually too late anyway.

  13. I agree with Greg. In my building’s elevators, they inexplicably replaced the old familiar “Sous-sol 1” up to the 8th floor in a completely up-down linear fashion to now two columns, which alternate from “1” on the left to “2” on the right and so on.

    Add to that that the elevator’s lighting is quite dim and the the panel is reflective aluminium, and you can barely make out the buttons without a flashlight. So I frequently stab “S1” when I mean “RC” (Jesus, don’t get me started on the naming conventions for “lobby”) and my tiny son happily accidentally rings the emergency bell, which is just below “S1”.

    Can you say “E-F-F-I-C-I-E-N-T”? I don’t think the word exists in Quebec.

  14. Me, too. It seems so obvious once I stop and sort it out, but no way can I perform that calculation in the time necessary to help a fellow human get on.

  15. I agree with most posters that say that the button represents the DESIRED state. At the same time this just illustrates the point that icons are not universally understood. In most American cities the buttons would be labelled with the words OPEN or CLOSE which are far more quickly understood than bizarre icons. In fact, it might be good to adopt better-understood icons from other milieux, for instance, the PLAY, STOP and EJECT buttons from iTunes. Play = close doors and get on your way; stop=emergency stop; eject=get me out of here.

    in software, this is like the difference between Cubase with its strange hieroglyphic icons, and Pro Tools, which uses buttons labelled with words for everything that is not standard “play, rec, stop, pause” tape transport iconography.

  16. How often do we really need the “close doors” button? They could make the “open doors” (or, more accurately: “keep doors open”) button more prominent than the “close doors” one. Same way some elevators have a way to make obvious which floor to reach the exit.
    Personally, I tend to put my hand in the door to prevent it from closing when I see someone approaching. In the métro, it’s against the rules to hold doors, and I understand why. In an elevator, I see it as something like holding the door for the person behind me. (Of course, Montrealers think I’m weird when I hold the door like that.)

    Speaking of elevators, guess which building I’m thinking about. “Utilitarian, cube-shaped, 1960s-style high-rise [building] made of pre-fabricated stressed concrete.” Twelve floors above ground. The last few floors have recently been revamped. Thousands of people go through this building every day of the week and they are often in a hurry. Two elevators for the whole building. During lunchtime, these elevators will not stop on floors 2 through 6. Escalators often don’t work. The institution which owns this building has other buildings under construction but no plan to replace this one or make it easier for people to go from one floor to the next.
    Oh, and my office is on the eleventh floor. ;-)

  17. As AJ said: why not put OPEN and CLOSE on the buttons? In Quebec we could add “ouvrir” et “fermer”, button would be full, but we would get it. When I enter an elevator, I always try to remember which one is what and end up closing the door on someone’s nose…

  18. I’m not alone! I never use the buttons because I always get it wrong, they are the most universally confusing two symbols on the planet. I stick my foot in the door to keep it open and if there is ever a scary monster or axe murderer chasing me, I’m resigned to the fact that I’m toast.

  19. Hi Ed,

    Your brain is not defective… maybe there is an Hacker hiding inside you.

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