Normative Signs: The Poetry of "Ought"

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

Month: August, 2014

Evolving Rules: No Vapor, Please!

As society changes, sometimes normative signs have to change. Here’s an example:
This sign is posted by a restaurant patio in Philadelphia. Note that, just a year ago, such a sign probably would not have existed. Vaping — the use of e-cigarettes — just wasn’t a thing.

Interestingly, the relevant City of Philadelphia Ordinance doesn’t seem to mention vaping at all. It seems that someone has extrapolated from an ordinance about smoking to assume something very controversial, namely that vaping amounts to the same thing as smoking traditional cigarettes.

When Regulations Get in the Way

IMG_3794This sign is posted in a planter on the sidewalk in downtown Philadelphia.

It’s a great example of how normative signs can demonstrate more general principles of regulation. In this case, it demonstrates that sometimes regulations — the regulations someone thinks, rightly or wrongly, are needed — are just so intrusive that you might as well give up on the regulated activity altogether.

As you can see from the image below, the normative sign here sort of um, dominates the ostensibly beautifying flowers.
Thinking about normative signs as an attempt to regulate behaviour, we should also notice that there are alternatives here. The owner of these flowers could have opted to place spikes along the edge of the planter to make sitting on the planter uncomfortable. Would that be better, or worse?

Normativity in Three Voices

One of the things I like best about normative signs is the variety of ways of saying the same thing. Look at this trio of signs, for example, posted at a hospital parking lot in Toronto:
3_waysAll three of them embody the same message, the same request: “Slow Down.” But none of them actually says that.

The first is a pictogram, depicting speed bumps, effectively warning you that failure to slow down will do damage to your car. Buyer beware.

The second merely (?) describes the present neighbourhood as being of a certain kind. This is a “traffic calmed” (not “calmed traffic”?) neighbourhood. In other words, this is the sort of neighbourhood where a certain kind of behaviour — namely, driving calmly or slowly — is obviously appropriate.

And the third sign indicates that the speed limit (not legally binding, I think, because it’s private property and the sign is in yellow) is just 20 kilometres per hour.

So: three signs, three ‘languages,’ one message!