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What's so red about the post-office red? The identity of a product in public space:

by Ravi Poovaiah, IDC, IIT Bombay




This happened near Mumbai's World Trade Centre located in its savvy Cuffe Parade neighborhood. Here, while waiting for a friend, I saw a middle-aged lady, probably new to the city, trying to insert a letter into a telephone junction box. This box had been installed right next to the footpath. I also noticed that she kept looking for a slot to insert her letter. Obviously, she had made a mistake in identification, mistaking the telephone junction box for a post box.

For all of us who are in some way or the other involved with different aspects of 'Communication Design', it might be helpful to understand the root of the confusion that I happened to spot, and why such confusions happen to prevail in a widespread manner across India.

If we were to compare the visual features of these two products, it would be apparent. The post boxes are painted red in colour - a tradition that has been adhered to since the British times. (as a matter of fact, the shade of red is even called the 'post office red'). The shape and form of the post boxes varies. The most identifiable being the circular one with a sort of cap on top. Then, there is the variation of a box that sits on a pole, which is also quite unique in its identity. And, in cities or places where one expects a large mail, our postal service has installed a large rectangular box with two slots for the letters.

On the other hand, the junction box used by the telephone services is also red in colour and is rectangular in shape.. This red colour is most probably chosen to denote danger. The flat surface it offers unfortunately becomes a convenient place to stick posters and notices. Consequently, the only message that ends up being displayed on this product is 'stick no posters'. So if we were to compare the visual product qualities of these two products, they would seem to bear a similarity of colour and similarity of form in terms of size and shape. And since both are located on the footpath, that too very clearly in the public domain, there could be enough case for mistaking one for the other. And, that is probably what happened to the lady.

It follows therefore, that it is quite important for a product that is part of the public environment to be able to communicate the right message. The product or artifact should actually be able to say 'I am a post box. Please come and post your letters here' or 'I am a telephone junction box. Please don't take any notice me. I just happen to be here'. This centres around the question of allowing a product to express its identity. The product should clearly be identifiable in terms of its function. How does one achieve this? To begin with, the basic elements of an identity programme come to mind. First, having the name of the product written in text and displayed prominently, such that it gets noticed. Second, using graphics to help in identifying the product. Third, application of an appropriate colour or a combination of colours for easy association. And, fourth, a standardised typeface and layout to help in making these products seem part of the same family. Ideally, the product should be identifiable from a distance - as well as from all the sides. Or looked at from another perspective, it should be important to see how the product can be differentiated from other products in the given environment. So, carrying out a survey of similar products could help in making your own product unique and identifiable.

The above mentioned factors are all part of the function of how appropriately one uses communications design. We all know that there are many creative ways to achieve this. Thinking aloud on an optimistic note, both products could have had their names, maybe in more than one language, written bold on them. Both could have had a graphic or a symbol for easy identification, especially in the context of our multilingual society. The colour on the products could have been inviting for the postbox and subtle for the junction box. Using text, again multilingual, could have informed of further details. And, to express these intentions of the product, one could have made use of modern signage materials to wrap its skin into speaking the right messages. Just a pointer to make life easier on the public lane.

So, that brings us to my original question of "What's so red about the post-office red?", unless one decides to follow Henry Ford's famous norm of the thirties - "you can choose any colour for your car, so long as it is black."

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