Normative Signs: The Poetry of "Ought"

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

Month: July, 2013

Don’t Even Think About It


This sign is posted outside the Merriweather Post Pavillion, in Columbia MD.

Wayne Norman sent the picture. Wayne speculates that the fine for jumping the fence must be higher than the $101 price of the tickets for the Bob Dylan concert that was to be played that day.


Futile: This is Not a Walkway

not_a_walkway2Here’s another example of a desperate, perhaps futile, attempt to use normative signs to persuade people to act a particular way.

It says, “This is not a walkway.” You can see from the picture below that this sign occurs not once, but twice, along with a sign in between that points to the “pedestrian entrance to shopping centre” off to the right.

When I use normative signs in the classroom, as a conversation starter about policy making, I recommend to my students that they always ask themselves about the likely history behind any interesting normative sign they see. Reading the tea leaves here suggests a battle between incorrigible pedestrians and persistent regulators.

The picture was taken near a Walmart on Eglington Ave., in Toronto. Thanks to Brian Banks for the photo.

Ad hoc signs: “Don’t Lift by Lid”

dont_lift_by_lidHere’s a category of normative sign I haven’t dipped into here, until now.

It’s the ad hoc sign printed on a basic office printer.

This one says, “Please do not lift by lid.”

It’s posted next to a bunch of candles-in-jars, for sale in a small department store in Surfside Beach, South Carolina.

I love signs like this; they smack of exasperation, perhaps desperation.

The subtext of a sign like this is always, “People keep doing dumb stuff. The people who designed this product, or this place, or this display, didn’t foresee this obvious problem. So we’ve resorted to printing a damned sign ourselves, to warn people against doing the stupid thing they insist on doing.”


German Restroom Signs



Check out these lovely restroom signs from Berlin. In case it’s not obvious, they represent the standard (if somewhat exaggerated) male and female postures, respectively, for urinating. The fact that they may not be obvious is suggested by the fact that someone has helpfully added an H (Herren = gentlemen) and D (Damen = ladies) to the signs.

Is this a case of aesthetics over clarity? Or is the literalness (using body postures) just an attempt (successful or not) to cut through cultural and linguistic differences?

Thanks to Diana Gorbould for the photos.

False Precision

9mHere’s a perfectly reasonable no-smoking sign (posted adjacent to a building entrance somewhere in Toronto — I forget where.) It says “No smoking within 9 metres or 30 feet.” Fair enough.

Why two units of measure? For those who don’t know, Canada is officially on the metric system, but many adults over about 40 are still more comfortable with imperial units for some things. So lots of people are more comfortable measuring short distances in feet rather than in metres. More to the point, many Canadian adults are going to understand this rule better if it is expressed in feet.

Now, compare this sign:
This one is also in Toronto, located on a gate that allows entry into a small municipal park. Notice the difference?

This one says “No smoking within 9 metres or 29.5 feet….” Which, of course, is more accurate than the very approximate translation in the sign above. But is it actually better to be more accurate this way? If you really want accuracy, 9m is actually about 29.5276 feet. But once you go to that level of precision, it becomes obvious that more precision isn’t useful.

I suppose smokers might object to the “30 feet” approximation, since it not only bends the truth but uses that bending to push them half a foot farther away.

This illustrates a very general problem: the tradeoff between accuracy, on one hand, and simple clarity on the other. It also illustrates how a simple technical matter (representation of alternative units of measure) could actually have a differential affect on different people’s interests.

No Wake Zone

no_wake_zoneThis “No Wake Zone” sign is from Toronto’s Ashbridges Bay park. It is intended to direct boaters to driver slow enough not to cause a wake. Of course, land-lubbers may be confused: am I supposed to sleep here? Is caffeine forbidden?

(Not also, more pedantically, that this terse sign is somewhat verbally confusing. It means, of course, “This is a no-wake zone.” But most “no” signs forbid something, namely whatever comes after the “no.” That’s not the case here. Nor is this sign intended to state that there is no “wake zone” present, another possible interpretation. Making good, brief signs isn’t easy.)

Thanks to Barb Secker for the photo.

Art is Dangerous

do_not_touchArt galleries often feature normative signs — “do not sit in this chair,” and “no flash photography,” etc. But they typically have relatively few signs warning of physical danger.

But there are exceptions.

This was taken at the University of Toronto’s art gallery. It reads “Do not touch. Enter at your own risk. Caution: magnets under tension. Artwork is both fragile and dangerous. Look for wires.”

Thanks to Eric Fruhauf for the photo. Here’s the wildly dangerous artwork next to which the above sign was posted:

Airports are Scary

walkway_warningHere’s a sign at Philadelphia International Airport, which seems to suggest that the world is a very scary place. All sorts of things are apparently seriously dangerous, including wheelchairs, walkers, and (gasp!) open-toed footwear.

Of course, the dangers become more plausible once you see that the sign is located next to (but doesn’t actually refer to) a moving sidewalk.

Thanks to Wayne Norman for yet another pic.


Workers Have Families, Too

workers2Here’s a nice emotional plea, aimed at getting drivers to slow down in a construction zone.

The picture was taken in Markham, Ontario (just outside Toronto). Thanks to Charles for the photo.


Mind the Snakes

brake_for_snakesHere’s a nice one, located at Tommy Thompson Park on Toronto’s Leslie Spit.

I like the rhyming, as well as the way the snake graphic is integrated into the text.

Thanks to Scott Gavura for the picture.