Normative Signs: The Poetry of "Ought"

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

Grrrr, bark, woof

1610_657314499891_1940_nThe premise of this blog is that I find normative signs poetic. It’s not all good poetry, but still.

And apparently, some of this normative poetry is aimed at non-humans. Or at humans with a sense of humour.

Thanks to Samantha for submitting this photo, which was taken at a dog park in North Vancouver, BC.

YOU Are Responsible for Your Wake

your_wakeThis lovely sign is clearly intended to do more than express a truism. Of course it’s true that you, dear boater, are responsible for the wake your boat leaves. After all, who else could be?

The emphasis, it seems to me, is on the notion of personal responsibility. It’s a reminder with the tone of advice from a kindly uncle. “Look, kid. Take it from me. There’s no getting around it. YOU are responsible for what you do. No one else can be!” (It also reminds me of the old Smokey The Bear line: “Only YOU can stop forest fires.”

your_wake_2The sign is posted on a dock in Murrell’s Inlet, South Carolina.

Norms vs Nature (or “Vines fought the law, and the law won!”)

norms_v_natureAlthough I’m primarily fascinated by the language of normative signs, sometimes the beauty of a normative sign has nothing to do with the way it’s worded.

This picture was taken at the parking lot of a small commercial building in Santa Monica. It shows a sign fighting an uphill battle against an invasive vine. I love how this little sign — in some regards, the very essence of modern civilization — is beset on all sides by aggressive foliage. It’s downright goddam poetic.

Or, to flip the metaphor, the vines fought the ‘law,’ and for now the ‘law’ has won.

Enter Only (Even if that’s what you’re already doing)

This one would be unremarkable, were it not for its placement — or rather, its orientation.

It’s an “Enter Only” sign, placed at the driveway/entrance to a small housing complex in South Carolina. The problem is, it’s facing outward. So only the people who are already doing the right thing — entering — can see it.

Of course, having seen it upon entry, one can of course make a mental note not to try to exit that way, later. But as far as I could see, there was no inward-facing sign warning people not to exit here.


Evolving Rules: No Vapor, Please!

As society changes, sometimes normative signs have to change. Here’s an example:
This sign is posted by a restaurant patio in Philadelphia. Note that, just a year ago, such a sign probably would not have existed. Vaping — the use of e-cigarettes — just wasn’t a thing.

Interestingly, the relevant City of Philadelphia Ordinance doesn’t seem to mention vaping at all. It seems that someone has extrapolated from an ordinance about smoking to assume something very controversial, namely that vaping amounts to the same thing as smoking traditional cigarettes.

When Regulations Get in the Way

IMG_3794This sign is posted in a planter on the sidewalk in downtown Philadelphia.

It’s a great example of how normative signs can demonstrate more general principles of regulation. In this case, it demonstrates that sometimes regulations — the regulations someone thinks, rightly or wrongly, are needed — are just so intrusive that you might as well give up on the regulated activity altogether.

As you can see from the image below, the normative sign here sort of um, dominates the ostensibly beautifying flowers.
Thinking about normative signs as an attempt to regulate behaviour, we should also notice that there are alternatives here. The owner of these flowers could have opted to place spikes along the edge of the planter to make sitting on the planter uncomfortable. Would that be better, or worse?

Normativity in Three Voices

One of the things I like best about normative signs is the variety of ways of saying the same thing. Look at this trio of signs, for example, posted at a hospital parking lot in Toronto:
3_waysAll three of them embody the same message, the same request: “Slow Down.” But none of them actually says that.

The first is a pictogram, depicting speed bumps, effectively warning you that failure to slow down will do damage to your car. Buyer beware.

The second merely (?) describes the present neighbourhood as being of a certain kind. This is a “traffic calmed” (not “calmed traffic”?) neighbourhood. In other words, this is the sort of neighbourhood where a certain kind of behaviour — namely, driving calmly or slowly — is obviously appropriate.

And the third sign indicates that the speed limit (not legally binding, I think, because it’s private property and the sign is in yellow) is just 20 kilometres per hour.

So: three signs, three ‘languages,’ one message!

“Posted” (duh!)

Here’s another one I find odd. It’s posted — and it tells you it is posted — on the lawn of a private residence in South Carolina.
posted_4 It’s not immediately obvious what the word “Posted” means, here, or what it adds. Sure, it’s true that this sign was posted, but isn’t that obvious? (What’s the alternative? That the sign popped randomly into existence?) What else does that word add? Is it for emphasis? Or is it merely an introduction of sorts, like the word “NOTICE” at the top of a bulletin?

I looked around online for an answer, but found nothing authoritative. Some people suggest that “Posted” is a legal formality, or even a requirement. If (e.g.,) a charge of trespassing requires that a No Trespassing sign be posted, then the word “Posted” on the sign, I suppose, makes it abundantly clear that suitable notice has been given.

I’ve seen several signs like this around South Carolina, and also in Florida. Never in Canada.
posted2Odd also that on such signs the word NOTICE is typically in a larger font than the rest of the words. The net effect is actually that all you can see, from a distance, is that something (some injunction, presumably) has been posted. In the example just below, you actually have to get close enough to the sign that you are in violation of the sign’s injunction in order to read what the injunction is.


Unguarded Beach (or not)

Here’s one I simply do not understand:
It is posted at an public access point at a beach in Surfside Beach, SC.

Isn’t the sign straightforwardly self-contradictory? Doesn’t “unguarded” imply the absence of a lifeguard? And if there’s no life guard, how can you swim near him or her?

Perhaps (likely!) there’s something I’m missing. But if I’m missing it, I’m guessing I’m not the only one.

There are, in fact, lifeguards along this beach, by the way. So “unguarded” likely doesn’t actually mean “without lifeguards.” So what on earth does it mean?


No Feeding the Fish

One of the main points of this blog (if it has a point, which it doesn’t) is that there are many, many ways for people to use signs to tell each other what to do. Whatever it is that you want someone to do, there are a plethora of ways of saying it — differences in wording, phrasing, tone, punctuation, and so on.

But seldom do you get different methods demonstrated in a single location.

Here’s a fun example from a beach community in South Carolina. The first sign pictured says, hey, this is private property, buddy. No feeding the fish. Simple.


About 30 feet to the right, however, is another, more official sign that seems aimed at the same objective, but does a much better way of telling you why it is important not to feed the fish.

And then, not shockingly, 30 feet further to the right…yes, the woman in red shorts is feeding the fish.



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