Two leading designs of fluorescent sensors are combined to yield the novel hybrid system of the `Fluorophore-Receptor(1)-Spacer-Receptor(2)' format. We use 4-(dialkylaminoalkylamino)-7-nitrobenzo-2-oxa- 1,3-diazoles as examples. The emission from internal charge transfer excited states in the present instances are highly responsive to N-H deprotonation as well as being quenched by intramolecular tertiary amine groups via photoinduced electron transfer (PET). When applied to pH sensing, this leads in favourable cases to two steps in the fluorescence-pH profile which can be viewed as a multi-stable photoionic device, even though single steps are more usual. The former situation is favoured when the two proton-associated equilibria are sufficiently separated on the pH scale and when the PET process is of moderate efficiency. These systems have the added feature of excitation/emission wavelengths in the visible region. As a secondary theme, we point out that caution is required when designing sensors for transition metal ions from systems with intrinsically proton-sensitive fluorescence due to receptors either integrated with or spaced from the fluorophore. (C) 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.