Normative Signs: The Poetry of "Ought"

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

Month: April, 2013

You Can Refuse to Donate!

you_have_the_rightThis entirely amazing sign was sent by Wayne Norman.

Wayne tells me that this is at an official NC State Dept of Transport highway rest stop, 2 miles from the VA border on the I-85. It’s a weirdly verbose sign, and normatively complex.

As Wayne puts it:

They make it clear that they think something should be illegal, but that another branch of government won’t let them make it illegal. So they want to encourage you to take their normative attitude into your own hands, so to speak.

Stop, Point, Cross

stop_point_crossThis is at a crosswalk in Toronto. Not every crosswalk has them, but I’ve seen a few of them around.

On this blog, I’ve generally avoided signs that give instructions on how to do something. For my purposes, normative signs are ones that tell you that you should do something, period. The sign pictured here is a hybrid, I guess. It indicates how to cross the street safely — what procedure to follow — but also tells you in no uncertain terms that there are certain things you must do.

Interestingly, the procedure given on this sign is one I have literally never seen implemented by anyone here in Toronto.


speedbumpIs this a normative sign? Does it tell people what to do? In principle, it merely indicates the existence of a speed-bump. Whether you want to slow down (thereby avoiding damage to your car) is up to you. Functionally, though, it’s a command: slow down!

Do Not Open Door

do_not_open_door_2As an airline passenger, I found this one generated more questions than it answered. It’s on the door of a large Air Canada jet (a 767, I think, but I could be wrong).

Just who is this aimed at? Under what conditions would I (or anyone) be reading this sign, from outside, while the red light is flashing? Is there some chance that someone qualified to be standing outside this door, while the light is flashing, someone with an understanding of how to open the door, wouldn’t also know when not to do so?

I’m sure there are perfectly reasonable answers to those questions. But as someone boarding a plane about to soar above the Pacific ocean, I gotta say I found them somewhat unsettling.


Golf Carts Only

golf_carts_only_2At the edge of a golf course, in Hawaii.

I can imagine several reasons for this sign. One is safety — if golfers are whipping around in motorized carts, perhaps pedestrians are safer staying away. It may also be a way of keeping tourists off the golf course generally; the course is next to a long beach-walk that runs for a couple of kilometres through several beachfront hotel properties. The little bridge in the picture below is an attractive place to stand and take pictures, which could make tourists an obstruction to golfers trying to drive across the bridge.

Interesting, though, in an age in which motorized methods of getting around are generally looked down upon as being less environmentally friendly.


Watch for Children

watch_for_childrenThis is a fun juxtaposition of normative signs. It has the appearance (but only the appearance) of irony, or contradiction, or something. On the one hand, drivers are told to watch for children. On the other hand, kids are forbidden from doing the things that would have them in drivers’ way in the first place.

Of course, both signs are probably the result of the same kids vs. cars turf war, a conflict which can be resolved in at least 2 ways, apparently.

Obey Our Customs, Please!

please_tipHand-written normative signs are a very special category of their own. This one was on the wall of a massage therapist’s office in Washington, DC. It’s an interesting plea. After all, what decent traveller doesn’t want to respect local culture & customs?

Thanks to Peter Jarowski for sending this one.

All Are Welcome

all_are_welcomeYou might say this sign is normative, but definitely not heteronormative. This is a church on P Street in Washington, DC.

Actually, is this a normative sign? I usually think of normative signs as giving categorical instructions: “Do this,” or “Don’t do that.” Thus a bumper sticker or political slogan isn’t a normative sign in the relevant sense (i.e., the sense this blog is interested in) because it doesn’t offer specific instructions, but merely implies support for a point of view. In a way, the sign pictured here is in a way more like a Welcome matt. But the rainbow implies not just an expression of solidarity, but also a kind of targeted invitation: “You — yes you — should come worship here.”

(Thanks to Wayne for the pic.)

Control Your Dogs


Here’s another from Samantha Brennan. This time it’s a sign posted near a walking trail in Yorkshire, UK. It’s noteworthy for its politely conversational tone, as well as for the fact that the sign conjoins an injunction — “please control your dogs” — with a handy suggestion for how you might go about doing that (by keeping your dog on a leash).

Stair Railings and Bikes

Toronto-20130422-00614Here’s a sign posted on a university building. It’s a sign with a lot going on.

First, there’s the polite “please.” Wait, make that an emphatic “please,” with an exclamation mark.

Next, this is a sign in a category that interests me, namely signs that provide a reason for what they ask you to do or not to do. This sign points out that there’s a good reason not to lock your bike to the stair railings, namely that some people actually rely on such railings as aids to mobility.

Finally, there’s a threat: if you do lock your bike, it well be removed. (And then what? Is the vagueness part of the threat?)

Thanks to Nancy Walton for sending the picture.