Normative Signs: The Poetry of "Ought"

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

Month: July, 2014

“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.



compact_carThis photo was taken in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. There’s little remarkable about the normative sign, here. Except that a) it is remarkably terse, and b) the driver of the mid-sized SUV parked by it apparently has no idea — or no concern — what it means.

Nor, for that matter, did the drivers of most of the cars parked in that row. All of the spaces in this row were marked “Compact,” and about 3/4 of the vehicles were — this is the USA, after all — decidedly not compact.

Redesigning Parking Signs

parking_scheduleNormally I only post signs spotted ‘in the wild.’ But shown here is a sign that isn’t in use yet. It’s an attempt by designer Nikki Sylianteng to design a parking sign that actually makes sense.

Here’s the story from Wired: A Redesigned Parking Sign So Simple That You’ll Never Get Towed.

Here’s the designer’s page.

No Concealable Weapons


This sign is posted in Charleston, South Carolina.

This is not the sort of sign one sees in Canada (where I live), which is perhaps why I’m baffled and amused by the wording. Is it really “concealable” weapons they want to exclude? If you’re going to specify subsets of lethal weapons to exclude, I can understand why you don’t want concealed (i.e., hidden, secret) weapons. But why concealable? Is the implication that it is OK to walk in with a pump-action shotgun, but not a 6-shooter on your hip? After all, the former aren’t (easily) concealable, but the latter are concealable, even if not concealed.

More to the point, perhaps, is whether you want people trying to parse the concealed/concealable distinction as they approach the door.

I realize this is touchy stuff in many parts of the US, and I’m not posting this to engage in a debate over the right to bear arms. I just find the sign verbally odd.


Quick update: apparently the wording is legally required.

Getting Tough on Salad Bars

salad_bar_2This photo is from a restaurant salad bar in Massachusetts, where they apparently take their salad bar hygiene quite seriously. I wonder if the reference to a legal requirement is itself a legal requirement. I can imagine lots of ways to word this sign that would presumably achieve much of the same goal. You could say “please.” You could refer to the objective of maintaining hygiene, etc. Shoving the iron fist of the law into diners’ faces is a pretty strong normative move.

And if you’ve got to appeal to State Law (NB: this ain’t no mere local bylaw we’re talking about, mofo!) to get people to behave themselves at the salad bar, one wonders what the next step would be. Threats of prosecution? Surveillance cameras? An armed guard?

Also: Just what counts as “sampling,” here? Presumably they’re trying to stop people from grabbing individual garbanzo beans with their grubby fingers as they pass by on their way to the pasta salad. But what about using a serving spoon to put a sample onto my plate and… etc.?

Thanks to Dominic Martin for this photo.

Relatedly: I spotted this sign on a salad bar in South Carolina about a year ago. What could do a better job of implying parental oversight? Hey you. We see you with that dirty plate!

When is a customer not a customer?

paying_customersI love normative signs that clearly have a story behind them. This is never more the case than in the case of hand-written (or better, hand-modified) signs.

This picture is of the front door of a cafe on Manitoulin Island, in Ontario, Canada.

It is of course common for restaurants and other establishments to reserve the use of their washrooms for customers. The provision and maintenance of washrooms isn’t free, and so it’s reasonable for such places to at least try to limit their use. Such washrooms are not ‘public goods,’ but benefits of patronage.

But I wonder what it was that inspired the owners of this place to specify that washrooms are not just for customers, but for paying customers? Is the word “paying” just for emphasis, like the word “strictly” on the sign that says parking spots are “strictly reserved for customers”? Or did someone at some point cause a hassle (a major one?) by availing themselves of the facilities based on their status as an occasional customer, rather than a spending-money-today customer?

Thanks to Samantha for the photo.

Privileged Parking

privileged_parking_2There’s nothing quite like a normative sign that makes a special need into a wondrous gift. This parking isn’t just Reserved. It’s not just for some special need. This is Privileged Parking.

Like, OMG, getting to park here is such a status symbol!

I guess that in reality the use of the word “Privileged” may just be a sign of respect: you don’t have to be disabled to use this space — you just have to be over 65. It’s like a “respect your elders” thing.

This is outside a grocery store in Hagerstown, Maryland. The Privileged Parking spot is right next to two more spots marked by a standard handicapped-parking sign.