a brief vignette on an elevator button panel

Check out this elevator button panel found outside an elevator at the University of Chicago’s Swift hall:

Yes, this is the display you see before getting on the elevator. In the hallway. Just to clarify, all of those numbers are just light-up indicators telling you what floor the elevator is at. Only the arrow at the bottom can be pressed; it’s the main call button.

This panel is visually confusing for several reasons:

1. Homogenous look & feel: a. There’s no way to distinguish between buttons and indicator lights (until you try to push them). The numbers look like they can be pushed to instruct the elevator to go to that floor. The only way you find out that they’re not buttons is by trying to push them and then realizing that only once you’re inside the elevator will that sort of panel consist of buttons.

1.b. There are two ‘up’ arrows (and one down arrow). It becomes clear (after at least staring at this array for a couple of seconds, or after pressing some immovable pieces of plastic) that one up arrow is the one call button you want, and other arrows are for… I don’t even remember… maybe telling you what direction the car is moving

2. Location: The indicator lights are at hand-level, where you would normally only expect to find something that you can manipulate in some way (rather than just look at, which is what these little circles are actually for). A good way to communicate the fact that these are just lights would be to have them up and out of the way.

3. Layout: Everything is in the same “column”, grouping together things that don’t belong in the same group (buttons to call the elevator, lights to tell you where it is, keyhole for maintenance people). If the indicator lights have to be in the same vicinity as the up button, the designer might want to emphasize “HERE’S THE BUTTON. THIS ONE. HERE.” by isolating it and drawing attention to it.

So, in short, move the indicator lights out of arm’s reach. If you can’t do that, isolate them so that the one real button stands out. If you can’t do that, at least make them look like non-buttons. Then your building’s guests can just walk up to the elevator, call the lift without thinking about it, and be on their way.