World Toilet Day — that’s today, Nov. 19 — is no joke. (Although clearly the German toilets pictured above have a sense of humor.)
This day in honor of the loo was created by Jack Sim, a Singapore entrepreneur who founded the World Toilet Organization in 2001. In 2013, it was declared an official U.N. day. The aim is to raise awareness about the need for more toilets. And there’s a lot of need.
According to the World Health Organization, 2 billion people “still do not have basic sanitation facilities such as toilets or latrines.” That’s 300 million fewer people than last year, but it still works out to about 1 in 4 people without any kind of toilet at all.
The U.N. is calling for “adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all” by the year 2030.
But just because you have a toilet doesn’t mean that all is well.
Toilets can be a bit confusing for some folks. Perhaps you’re used to a squat toilet, which usually involves planting your feet on either side and hovering over a toilet bowl that’s set in to the ground. Or peeing into a drain or hole in the ground.
So you might not understand the ins and outs of a white porcelain throne with a built-in flusher.
That’s where toilet signs come in.
The images may seem unusual to some — um, why is that guy standing on the toilet lid to do his business?
But the signs perform an important function, says Hope Randall, a communications officer at PATH, a nonprofit focused on global health, including water and sanitation.
Signs can help communicate healthy and safe hygiene practices, she says.
“We need to break the poo taboo,” Randall says. “Poop is not a sexy topic, so it’s an inherent communications challenge.”
So what is the best kind of sign to communicate how to use toilets?
“There can’t really be one answer,” Randall says. “Just like toilets, there’s no one-size-fits-all message to motivate people to change behavior.”
Doug Lansky has seen many such signs. He’s the author of Signspotting, a series of books on funny warning and advice signs. Toilets are an especially popular topic.
Signs often encourage sitting instead of squatting, Lansky has found. But both he and Randall point out that research has indicated that our intestines may function better in a squatting position.
“Plus, it’s more hygienic to squat,” Lansky says. “Squatters think it’s gross that we put our butts on the same seat that other people put their butts on.”
Some signs advise against the practice of open defecation. According to UNICEF, the phrase refers to “the practice whereby people go out in fields, bushes, forests, open bodies of water or other open spaces rather than using the toilet to defecate.” This type of toileting puts people at risk of disease from the germs in human feces.
Signs also address the issue of gender — or in the tweet below, illustrate that all genders are welcome.
And then there are the signs that warn against multitasking with a toilet.
Melody Schreiber (@m_scribe on Twitter) is a freelance journalist in Washington.