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Signs For When Words Fail

Let's say you're sick and tired after weeks of traveling and find yourself with a worsening kidney infection, wandering the hospital halls looking for the nephrology clinic....in rural Uzbekistan. Or any place else where you don't speak the language, and can't puzzle out the words.

graphic of face sprayed with medicine from tube.

Hospital signs could be clearer. Courtesy University of Cincinnati hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy University of Cincinnati

Or, let's just say that, like about half of all American adults — 90 million — you can't read well enough to navigate an American hospital with written signs.

Pictures could help in both cases, say health literacy experts. But which pictures?

Design students at the University of Cincinnati this week announced they have a few ideas. They've been noodling over how to best represent abstractions like "In-Patient Clinic." How do you best distinguish between the mental health clinic and neurology? (And is that a tube of acne medicine aimed at my eye, or are you just glad to see me?)

(More experimental signs after the jump)

Check out the slide show sampling of the rough first batch. (What do you think? The students welcome helpful feedback. Email their teacher at fernano@uc.edu) Sign experts next month will pick the best designs and start testing them in real live hospitals around the country.

Good luck with that. If research on prescription drug warning labels is any indication, coming up with clear medical signs everybody understands is tougher than it looks. And, of course, some mix-ups go beyond the best sign.

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