Normative Signs: The Poetry of "Ought"

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

Emergency! (What? When?)

Here’s an example of a sign that simply gives too little information. It’s posted on a residential street in Toronto (near Ossington and Dupont), along with several others like it. The weathered look of the paper, and the growth of the surrounding greenery, suggests that the emergency — whatever it was — wasn’t recent.

And yet the signs are still there. It’s easy to see the analogy with certain laws & regulations.

The real problem: now that I’ve seen some of these clearly outdated ’emergency’ signs, am I as likely to take other such signs seriously in the future?

(Further thought: Is it even an official sign? Maybe not. There’s no police logo, and no contact information. Did I fall for it?)

Update! I asked the Toronto Police, and it is an official sign… but perhaps not put UP officially. Here’s the tweet:

We’re Watching (Your Dog)

Sometimes the humour in a normative sign comes from how two signs are juxtaposed.

(Photo by Chris MacDonald)

You. Shall. Not. Pass!

Sometimes a normative sign gains poignancy from the presence of an imposing enforcer.

(Photo by Chris MacDonald)

London Scolding Signs

This article from the BBC shows “scolding” signs (a sub-set of normative signs, I guess) photographed by the author, Fraser McAlpine, during a walk through Southwark, in London.

Commit No Nuisance: Five Great British Scolding Signs*

Here’s a sample:


*I normally only post “original” content (photos sent to me by the person who took them), but the signs McAlpine photographed are too good not to make an exception.
— Thanks to Phil Smith for sending me the URL.

Don’t Flush Foreign Objects

Two things come to mind with regard to this straightforward sign.

1) It seems like a perfectly reasonable request—provided you have a clear understanding of what “foreign” means in this context.

2) What’s the story here? What’s the history? What were people flushing (no, I don’t *really* want to know) that inspired officials to print and post this sign? (My constant theme: every sign, like every government regulation, has a history.)

Thanks to Charles for contributing this image (which is from an office building of Canada’s federal government).

Steam Rooms and the Rising Cost of Health Care

As the contributor of this photo says, “Imagine how annoyed doctors would be if everyone started booking appointments to get permission to have a steam bath.” (Yes, this sign is likely intended to mitigate liability. But imagine if it were taken seriously!)

The picture was taken at a YMCA in Toronto, and contributed by Marnina Norys.

Eating Customers

Is this a “Welcome All Zombies” sign? Or just evidence, once again, that punctuation matters. Or that “eating” isn’t really a synonym for “dining.”

This sign is posted in the window of a burger joint in Washington, DC, and was contributed by Wayne Norman.

Dear Hosers

File this under “There’s Gotta Be a Story Behind This One.” And also, “What Kind of Idiot Would Have Done That Anyway?”

This picture was taken at a hotel in New Zealand, and contributed by Jacob Levy.

Don’t Take Anything Literally

toiletWe assume this was not intended to be taken too literally. The pic was taken at a 7/11 in Virginia, and submitted by Phil Smith III. One imagines the literally-minded, dancing in distressed fashion, beside the toilet, sputtering, “But…but…but…!”

As Phil points out, the Spanish version is more reasonable. We do not know what the Korean version says.

Don’t Feed the Gators

dont_feed_alligators 2This sign is posted by a pond in Florida. A couple of things are interesting about it. First, most will find odd the idea of being tempted to harass a dangerous animal. “Harassing” a gator seems as obviously foolish as poking a lion. (And the word “harass” might itself seem off-base. Doesn’t harassment usually imply some sort of power imbalance in favour of the harasser? Can you harass someone or something that could eat you? Or are you merely antagonizing it? Dunno.)

Second, and more substantially, this is an example of a sign that is incomplete in an important, but perhaps unavoidable, way. The sign says not to feed the gators. But the sign doesn’t say not to feed the fish, which in turn might attract gators. I’m told that when this photo was taken, a father and son were merrily throwing bread to the fish in the pond, not realizing that a) the bread itself might attract the alligators’ attention, and that b) alligators eat fish (among other things), so that if you attract fish you’re pretty likely to thereby attract gators. But then a sign that said, “don’t feed or harass the alligators, or do anything else that is reasonably likely to attract their attention” would probably lose its impact.

Thanks to Rahul Dhanda for the photo.