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The Running Man on the Emergency Exit Signs: What's his Story?

The Running Man on the Emergency Exit Signs: What's his Story?

  2012-10-17         sparksdirect         Advice » Lighting Design Advice

Traditionally, the emergency exit was marked by a simple illuminated sign that spelled out the word "EXIT" in the local language.

For those that don't speak it, though, that can cause confusion. Or even amusement: many Americans seem to be amused by the "WAY OUT" signs on the London Underground.

While some of those signs are still in use today, emergency exits are more commonly indicated by a simple picture: that of a man leaving through a door.

The Running Man

Colloquially, that little green man is known as the 'running man,' although his designer Yukio Ota spent a lot of time trying to make it look as though he was walking towards the exit in a brisk and orderly fashion.

There are many variations on the running man in Europe and often within the same building, but the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) mandates that all its member countries use the same signage.


Pictograms such as running man are much more widely understood than words, and a considerable amount of time and effort is put into developing them.

Ota submitted 58 versions of his design to the Japanese fire safety commission. It's for this reason that airports and other gathering places for international travelers have been adopting this form of signage since the 1960s.

A pictogram should be immediately understandable by anyone who might need to use it.

But Why is it Green?

Emergency exit signs are illuminated because they might otherwise be difficult to see through smoke. And they are green for two reasons:
  1. Green is commonly understood as the 'colour of safety.'
  2. The rods in the human eye are more sensitive to green light, so these signs are easier to see in dark conditions.
If you're interested in reading more about the storied history of the running man, Slate ran an article on its design and the strange war of the exit signs in the US.

Meanwhile, the running man can be found in our emergency lighting section, where we stock lighted signage, exit boxes and emergency bulkheads for indoor and outdoor applications.