Normative Signs: The Poetry of "Ought"

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

How Do I Say No? Let Me Count The Ways!

The sign below is noteworthy for the sheer number of different ways in which it says “no.” Let’s enumerate them, for the record. First is (1) the scary electricity symbol at left, which would make any reasonable person want to stay away. Next is (2) the universal “no people!” symbol at right. Then there’s (3) the very general warning of “DANGER.” Then the sign gets more specific. Not just danger, but (4) danger due to “High Voltage.” If you’re not convinced by risks to your personal safety, maybe you’ll respect property rights? So next, there’s (5) “No Trespassing.” Then there’s (6) reference to being fined, as well as (7) to being prosecuted. Then (in the fine print) there’s reference to (8) the by-laws of the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) as well as to (9) the Province of Ontario’s relevant legislation, the Trespass to Property Act. That’s 9 ways of saying the same thing. As normative signs go, it’s not exactly poetic, but it is certainly emphatic.

(Photo by Chris MacDonald — taken near Yonge and Eglinton, in Toronto.)

No Exit? No…Exit!

The sign below is on the inside — yes the inside — of the exit door for a university classroom. The words seem to affirm that, yes indeed, this is the exit. But the symbol above it is the universal symbol for “NO ACCESS” or something similar. The result is deeply confusing, though it would be interesting to see how many people really are confused in practice, and whether they do in fact hesitate or avoid using the door as a result. The sign, of course, is supposed to be on the OTHER side of the door, to prevent people from entering via the exit door.

Photo credit: Hasko von Kriegstein

Normative Density–Subway Edition

I’ve long been fascinated by what I call “normative density”–the quantity of normative claims made within a given public space. Public transit is a common location for high normative density. The picture* above–taken in a subway in Philadelphia–is a good example. In addition to the standard warning signs about how and when to exit the subway car safely, there’s also a interesting sign cajoling riders into using up only their fair share of space. Note that “Dude it’s rude” is, from a normative point of view, in a very different space from signs that simply forbid the relevant behaviour.

*Apologies to the friend who sent this photo to me–I’ve lost track of who you are! But thank you!

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.