German punctuation makes travel easier – especially exclamation marks!

A cluster of exclamation marks.

People who work with words in English tend to be disdainful about exclamation marks but that’s not the case in every language, including German.

In Germany the Ausrufezeichen (exclamation mark) is used much more freely on signs. And there’s a sound logic behind how it is used.

The S-Bahn is Berlin’s rapid rail system. On an S-Bahn platform a sign tells me the train doors might open automatically. The exclamation mark tells me the message is very important.

A yellow sign which shows a warning symbol over an image of the doors with text in German and English: "Attention! Doors can open automatically!"

In the German language, exclamation marks have a more literal meaning than in some other languages, including English.

They tell me the information is very important, usually because it warns me of something harmful. Like this sign warning train passengers about “tricksters”, or scammers.


The messages on the signs below are different. They tell S-Bahn passengers to keep the doors closed when it’s cold and to validate tickets before travelling.

Two signs, one asking people to close the train door in cold weather, the other asking people to validate their tickets before boarding the train.

They're important, but the absence of an exclamation mark tells me they’re not critically important.

I might have to pay a fine or people might be cold for a short time, but I won’t fall off the train or be robbed.

I lived in Germany about a decade ago. Long after I'd learned the basic language I still felt a moment of stress when I saw an exclamation mark. To me, it felt aggressive and condescending.

Despite that moment of stress, I learned that the German exclamation mark is factual and helpful. It’s a scannable, simple signal.

I'm not fluent in German so I need more time to understand words and grammar than in my home language.

The exclamation mark tells me what to prioritise if there's a lot of information around me.

Diverse research participants give richer insight

Language holds a lot of meaning. That meaning can be overt or covert, emotional or not.

An exclamation mark’s meaning and usefulness is different for me and for a person with a different set of languages, or way of processing information.

In design, we never base a decision on one person's experience. I feel a moment of stress when I see an exclamation mark but for an anxious person that feeling might last for hours.

Others might see a disconnect between the literal meaning of the words and the punctuation and struggle to make sense of those seemingly conflicting messages.

That’s why it's important to do research with diverse groups.

A group whose members have similar educations, experiences of the world, and language fluency will give you useful insight.

But a group who experience the world differently, for a variety of reasons, will give you richer, more challenging insight.

Diverse design teams deliver stronger work, faster

These are also good reasons to hire diverse design teams. In a monocultural or monolingual design team, for example, it would be easy to take the meaning of an exclamation mark for granted.

Design teams who are culturally, linguistically and neurologically diverse will interpret research differently, and notice different things.

Team members who experience the world differently through disability or systemic inequalities may anticipate barriers that other team members don’t instinctively feel.

The more we work in diverse teams, the more practised we become at noticing barriers we don’t experience ourselves.

And if we're used to looking at design from multiple perspectives, our design will be better reasoned before we bring it to usability testing.

The better it is at that stage, the richer the data we will gather, which gets us to a better live product or service.

Which means the people who use our product or service will get the best possible experience.

It can also mean that we draw more detailed information from live data which we can use for better iteration.

Learn more about content design for diverse audiences