Precision, art and psychology: how passenger safety briefing cards are made

The Interaction Group

When was the last time you picked up a passenger safety card while you were on a flight and actually studied it from front to back?

If you were sitting on an emergency exit row,the chances are high because the cabin crew will ask you to read them so you can be prepared to help in the event of an emergency. But in general, the average passenger is more likely to pay attention to the inflight safety video rather than the safety card.

February is aviation safety month at AeroTime, and it’s the perfect time to feature that nifty little sheet that is often overlooked but can save lives: the passenger safety briefing card.

These cards are so important that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)  and the  European Aviation Safety Agency  (EASA) require that all aircraft passenger seats must have a safety briefing card before being permitted to take off.

There are plenty of things to know about how passenger safety briefing cards are made, and their importance in aviation. To find out more, AeroTime spoke to Trisha Ferguson, CEO of The Interaction Group, a world leader in the creation of aircraft safety cards.

Based in Olympia, Washington, The Interaction Group have been designing and creating passenger safety cards for more than 50 years.

Trisha Ferguson, CEO of The Interaction Group  image: The Interaction Group

Ferguson gave us a fascinating insight into the world and psychology behind creating airline safety cards, and we are making a bold prediction that after reading this article, you will never see a passenger briefing card the same way again.

The passenger safety briefing card works

Unfortunately, the only way to find out if a passenger safety briefing card truly works is during the event of an untoward incident. 

The Ethiopian Airlines hijacking incident in 1996 is a chilling example of how lives have been saved by the safety card.

In 1996, Ethiopian Airlines flight 961 was forced to make an emergency water landing in the Comoros Islands due to fuel exhaustion after it was hijacked by three men. The hijackers had demanded that the pilots fly the plane to Australia, almost 9,000 kilometers away, so that they could seek asylum. 

The flight was operated by a Boeing 767-200ER and was serving the route Addis Ababa–Nairobi–Brazzaville–Lagos–Abidjan.

125 of the 175 passengers and crew on board died after the plane crashed into the Indian Ocean.

The majority of the 50 survivors credited reading the passenger safety card, which The Interaction Group made for Ethiopian Airlines, as a factor in saving their lives. Those who read the card remembered to only inflate the life jacket when they were outside the aircraft. 

Many died from being trapped when water entered the cabin because they had prematurely inflated their life jackets, so they floated upwards towards the ceiling.

This was a pivotal moment for Ferguson, who realized that the safety cards created by the company had an enormous impact on educating passengers to know how to save their lives in the event of an incident.

In a 2021 Human Risk podcast interview about the psychology and design of airline safety cards, Ferguson shared that when people find out what she does for a living, most are under the misconception that, “the cards are all the same”.

Well, not only are the cards not all the same, but there are several key factors to consider when designing them. 

Safety card designs vary by region

Image: The Interaction Group

All passenger safety cards are regulated by the country in which the aircraft is certified, so each region has its own requirements and regulations.

For instance, Ferguson shared with AeroTime that some global regions require separate safety cards for the blind and visually impaired, while some merely suggest the idea, and there are others where the subject is not mentioned at all. 

When it comes to exit row seats, Ferguson said that the FAA requires exit row seating additional procedures to be listed on every card, while other regulators only require it to be included in the cards placed in the exit row seats.

Ferguson also shared that all regions have different requirements based on crew to passenger ratios. The larger the passenger load, the more information and oversight is required.

In the United States, Ferguson said that a statement needs to be included on safety cards identifying the place of the aircraft’s final assembly. 

“For example, if you are flying an Airbus aircraft, you may need multiple versions of the safety card where there are varying phrases of: ‘Final assembly of aircraft was completed in France (or Germany, or the United States),” she said. 

Designing requires training and testing

Image: The Interaction Group

“I have been through extensive industry crew training and every employee of The Interaction Group goes through aircraft training during the hiring process,” Ferguson told AeroTime. 

“If there is new equipment for us to illustrate it goes through a process of taking visuals (or tangible product) from concept to completion,” Ferguson added.

After the initial design is completed, the cards undergo comprehension testing via a third party company to make sure that illustrations and instructions are understood by at least 90% of a cross section of groups.  

If less than 90% of the group do not fully understand the illustrations, then the card will not be passed to the airline.

SAE ARP1384, the document identifying safety card content and standards, was originally published by The Interaction Group.  

The psychology of color plays a big part

Image: The Interaction Group

Psychology plays a big part in the design process of passenger safety cards. 

“During incidents or accidents, one of our first responses is to go out the way we came in,” Ferguson said. 

This is why the cards make use of color to convey very specific messages and instructions. 

Ferguson told AeroTime: “There are times an airline may request colors that are in-line with their branding, but that may also reduce the understandability of the illustrations. We communicate, based on our knowledge, where and how that will affect understandability.  Almost always there is a solution that works for both the branding and content.”

As for specific colors that play a crucial role in people’s actions during times of distress, Ferguson gave the example of red versus green.

“Red represents things like hazard, pause and/or stop.  Green subconsciously communicates go and/or movement.  These are two colors that, if not done well, can confuse the consumer and cause the individual to do the exact opposite of what is needed,” Ferguson shared.

Creativity may be limited, but it is still possible

Image: The Interaction Group

When your job is to relay specific instructions to passengers in order to help save their lives, there can be no room for interpretation. But is there still room for creativity or trends?

Ferguson said that creativity lies within the design of the image styles and colors.  

“We do a lot of custom designs specifically for a carrier who wants original artwork specifically and only for their brand,” she said. 

“Sizes, layouts and material trends happen often.  Flat cards, folded cards, laminate or no laminate, sustainable materials, etc. are all variances that you will find are regional.  Some regions want heavy text on their cards, which can cause comprehension obstacles, and some want zero text. Other trends have to do with color usage, full color vs. dual color,” Ferguson added.

Why are safety cards still illustrated?

Image: The Interaction Group

But it is 2023, and design techniques and skills have moved forward, so why are passenger safety cards still illustrated? Why do they not make use of photographs, which are surely more accurate?

“Photographs are not understood well and test very poorly. In a photograph, it is difficult to focus because photographs have a lot of extra visual noise.  With illustrations, you can simplify the image and therefore focus the consumer on the exact information. This equals higher understandability,” Ferguson said.

It makes perfect sense.

Now that you know what goes into designing safety cards and, more importantly, how it’s been proven to save lives, we hope that you’ll have a new found appreciation for these cards the next time you fly. They really can be the difference between life and death. 

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