Design Out Drowning

Exploring new ways to share the RNLI’s safety advice.
Sand signage from the RNLI's Design Out Drowning project

Photo: RNLI

You may have seen some striking sand signs on the news over the last couple of weeks, sharing the RNLI’s safety advice with coastal visitors in a new and captivating way.   

These impactful messages are the result of the RNLI’s Design Out Drowning project. 

Through this project, the RNLI is exploring new ways of raising awareness of dangers and protecting people when they are at the coast.  

Innovation based on evidence 

In 2018, the RNLI’s Innovation Team researched the reasons behind why people were getting in difficulty in the water in Newquay between the beaches of Perranporth and Trevose Head. The research was carried out with south west design agency Made Open, to help us understand the safety issues from a truly community-based perspective. 

The research identified that, despite the very best efforts by lifesaving and prevention teams, people are still getting into difficulty by: 

  • being cut off by the tide
  • getting caught in rip currents. 

This is largely because signage around coastal areas is not always clear and is easy to walk past or ignore. Here are some examples of signage around the Newquay area:

Existing signage in the south west

Photo: RNLI

Examples of the existing signage around the south west coast.

The results of this research led to a key question …

‘How might we reduce drowning by rethinking how and when we increase understanding about water safety tides and rip currents?’

The Innovation Team put this question to local creative and design teams in south west England at the start of 2019  to help Design out Drowning. Ideas were pitched to the RNLI’s Innovation Team and the strongest ones have been selected for trials this summer. The brief was for their ideas to: 

  • enhance the coastal experience for visitors
  • be sustainable 
  • be able to be tested and measured for effectiveness. 

Sand Signage

The Sand Signage idea came from Graphic Designer David Revell after he was inspired by watching his family write in the sand on a day out at the beach. 

David says: ‘The concept is simple really - to create signs in the sand that could direct beach users to either the safest part of the sea, or inform them of potential risks and how to avoid them.’

Graphic Designer David Revell

Photo: RNLI

Graphic Designer David Revell 

David decided on the letter size by testing the font's legibility from distance, as well as his ability to make the characters look professional. He developed a system using rakes, ropes and pegs to make the letters 2m wide by 3m long, the optimal size based on David’s research.

The sand signage is being used to highlight: 

  • what time beachgoers need to return before they get cut off by the tide
  • the locations of dangerous rip currents
  • to encourage people to swim between the red and yellow flags, which are patrolled by RNLI lifeguards.

The sand signage is currently being trialled at Perran Sands, Bedruthan Steps, and Watergate Bay.

Sand signage from the RNLI's Design Out Drowning project

Photo: RNLI

Measuring results

We are measuring the results of this activity by running questionnaires with visitors and observing their behaviours before and after they have seen the sand signage. This will give us insights into the effect of the signs on visitors’ understanding of rip currents and tidal cut offs, and their behaviours around these safety risks. 

If successful, sand signs could be rolled out to other areas of the UK and Ireland. 

Future Lifesaving Innovation Delivery Manager, Tim Robertson, says: ‘It has been exciting to work with designers as they develop unique interventions to address lifesaving challenges. The interest generated by David’s sand signage so far is encouraging.

‘By the end of the summer, the Future Lifesaving Innovation Team hope to have a clear understanding of how best to make signs on the beach, what those signs should say to be most effective and, fundamentally, how effective they are in changing people’s behaviours around rip currents and tidal cut offs.’

It will be great to see whether  these sand signs will capture people’s attention, allowing us to deliver important safety advice in a timely and memorable way, while preserving and enhancing the beauty of the coast for all visitors and having a minimal impact on our environment. 

Find out more about Design Out Drowning 

Design Out Drowning is an ongoing project exploring several initiatives all with the aim of reducing coastal fatalities in the south west this summer. Look out for updates from the Innovation Team in the autumn. 

Get in touch with Tim Robertson from the Innovation Team to find out more about Design Out Drowning.

Sand signage from the RNLI's Design Out Drowning project

Photo: RNLI