Normative Signs: The Poetry of "Ought"

In which the author finds beauty in how people tell other people what to do.


compact_carThis photo was taken in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. There’s little remarkable about the normative sign, here. Except that a) it is remarkably terse, and b) the driver of the mid-sized SUV parked by it apparently has no idea — or no concern — what it means.

Nor, for that matter, did the drivers of most of the cars parked in that row. All of the spaces in this row were marked “Compact,” and about 3/4 of the vehicles were — this is the USA, after all — decidedly not compact.

Redesigning Parking Signs

parking_scheduleNormally I only post signs spotted ‘in the wild.’ But shown here is a sign that isn’t in use yet. It’s an attempt by designer Nikki Sylianteng to design a parking sign that actually makes sense.

Here’s the story from Wired: A Redesigned Parking Sign So Simple That You’ll Never Get Towed.

Here’s the designer’s page.

No Concealable Weapons


This sign is posted in Charleston, South Carolina.

This is not the sort of sign one sees in Canada (where I live), which is perhaps why I’m baffled and amused by the wording. Is it really “concealable” weapons they want to exclude? If you’re going to specify subsets of lethal weapons to exclude, I can understand why you don’t want concealed (i.e., hidden, secret) weapons. But why concealable. Is the implication that it is OK to walk in with a pump-action shotgun, but not a 6-shooter on your hip? After all, the former aren’t (easily) concealable, but the latter are concealable, even if not concealed.

More to the point, perhaps, is whether you want people trying to parse the concealed/concealable distinction as they approach the door.

I realize this is touchy stuff in many parts of the US, and I’m not posting this to engage in a debate over the right to bear arms. I just find the sign verbally odd.


Quick update: apparently the wording is legally required.

Getting Tough on Salad Bars

salad_bar_2This photo is from a restaurant salad bar in Massachusetts, where they apparently take their salad bar hygiene quite seriously. I wonder if the reference to a legal requirement is itself a legal requirement. I can imagine lots of ways to word this sign that would presumably achieve much of the same goal. You could say “please.” You could refer to the objective of maintaining hygiene, etc. Shoving the iron fist of the law into diners’ faces is a pretty strong normative move.

And if you’ve got to appeal to State Law (NB: this ain’t no mere local bylaw we’re talking about, mofo!) to get people to behave themselves at the salad bar, one wonders what the next step would be. Threats of prosecution? Surveillance cameras? An armed guard?

Also: Just what counts as “sampling,” here? Presumably they’re trying to stop people from grabbing individual garbanzo beans with their grubby fingers as they pass by on their way to the pasta salad. But what about using a serving spoon to put a sample onto my plate and… etc.?

Thanks to Dominic Martin for this photo.

Relatedly: I spotted this sign on a salad bar in South Carolina about a year ago. What could do a better job of implying parental oversight? Hey you. We see you with that dirty plate!

When is a customer not a customer?

paying_customersI love normative signs that clearly have a story behind them. This is never more the case than in the case of hand-written (or better, hand-modified) signs.

This picture is of the front door of a cafe on Manitoulin Island, in Ontario, Canada.

It is of course common for restaurants and other establishments to reserve the use of their washrooms for customers. The provision and maintenance of washrooms isn’t free, and so it’s reasonable for such places to at least try to limit their use. Such washrooms are not ‘public goods,’ but benefits of patronage.

But I wonder what it was that inspired the owners of this place to specify that washrooms are not just for customers, but for paying customers? Is the word “paying” just for emphasis, like the word “strictly” on the sign that says parking spots are “strictly reserved for customers”? Or did someone at some point cause a hassle (a major one?) by availing themselves of the facilities based on their status as an occasional customer, rather than a spending-money-today customer?

Thanks to Samantha for the photo.

Privileged Parking

privileged_parking_2There’s nothing quite like a normative sign that makes a special need into a wondrous gift. This parking isn’t just Reserved. It’s not just for some special need. This is Privileged Parking.

Like, OMG, getting to park here is such a status symbol!

I guess that in reality the use of the word “Privileged” may just be a sign of respect: you don’t have to be disabled to use this space — you just have to be over 65. It’s like a “respect your elders” thing.

This is outside a grocery store in Hagerstown, Maryland. The Privileged Parking spot is right next to two more spots marked by a standard handicapped-parking sign.

No Big People (Without Little People)

No_big_people2This one is rather awkward.

This sign is posted in the Admiral’s Club at terminal D of Dallas Fort Worth airport. It’s posted on the door of the “Family Lounge,” an area where parents can take their small children to relax, play, whatever. The sign is presumably intended to remind people that if you don’t have a kid with you, you shouldn’t be hanging around this room. It is intended, in other words, as a pedophile deterrent.

A couple of questions come to mind:

What creepy behaviour led to someone thinking or realizing that a sign of this sort was necessary? Signs like this always have a history. (On second thought, I don’t want to know.)

Second, what was the meeting like? You know, the meeting at which the exact look-and-wording of the new sign was debated. What’s the right way to signal that you don’t want creeps leering at the kids? Interesting (and not surprising) that rather than being blunt, they opted for being cutesy. Which is, in itself, slightly creepy.

Thanks to Wayne for the photo.

Parking for Mothers or Parents?

parental_parking2I swear it’s coincidental that I’m posting this on Father’s Day.

And this is not a lame “men’s rights” blog entry. I’m genuinely curious about whether this sign really is intended to single out women with babies, or is it more generally for anyone with a young child. Is the gendered sign to be taken literally? Or is a dad with an infant allowed to park there?

The sign is posted in a grocery store parking lot.

I’m pretty sure this sign isn’t legally binding, anyway. But would (say) a private security guard tell a man with a baby (or male gay couple with a baby) to move out of this space? Would a fellow customer give a man with a baby a dirty look for parking in a women-with-babies parking spot? Hopefully not. Doing so would imply an assumption that — well, what? That women are the ‘weaker sex,’ and only they need special parking spots?

Again, my point here is not at all that the sign might be discriminatory, though I suppose that might be true. I’m curious instead whether the message is narrow (intentionally or not) or whether a female figure with a baby carriage should now be taken as a placeholder for any parent with an infant?

Ubiquitous Danger Overhead

overhead_lines2This sign seems radically under-informative to me.

Aren’t there overhead powerlines just about everywhere? And aren’t they generally safe, so long as you don’t do something stupid like climbing a pole without proper gear and training?

And if you do something stupid like that, aren’t power lines always dangerous? So, what makes this situation/location special, such that it warrants a warning sign? There’s no evidence here of a special danger — no dangling powerlines. Perhaps (given the wooded location) the danger is to workers cutting / trimming trees. But then, why not say so? Besides, such workers are typically hyper-aware of such dangers.

The sign is posted on a trail adjacent to a suburb on the edges of Ottawa.

Just — as in ONLY — for a Change

change_tableThis sign is posted in a unisex washroom at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport. It clearly forbids any deviant uses of the adjacent infant-changing table. But frankly, I have no idea what kinds of other uses it’s got in mind. I mean, what, have people been using it as a dining table? I would never have thought of using a changing table for something else — at least not until this sign suggested that there might be other uses.

Notice the range of normative ‘tones,’ here. There’s an indication (in the first sentence) of what the table is intended for, which is one way of subtly discouraging deviant behaviour. Then there’s the firm injunction, in bold type. Then there’s the final nod towards the values of community and family.



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