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Signs: The most useful thing you pay no attention to
March 11, 2010 7:38 PM   Subscribe

Slate takes on signs and wayfinding. Part 1: The secret language of signs. Part II: Lost in Penn Station. Part III: Legible London. Part IV: Do you draw good maps? Part V: The war over exit signs. Part VI: Will GPS kill the sign?
posted by parudox (41 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite

 
Hebrew Sign Maker
posted by netbros at 7:55 PM on March 11, 2010


The exit sign one was pretty interesting. I think that I'd burn to death before figuring out what those green running man signs were.
posted by octothorpe at 7:57 PM on March 11, 2010


I draw good maps. I mean, they're not accurate per se, but I make sure they all have a place that says HERE BE DRAGONS on them, because that is the sign of a quality map.
posted by louche mustachio at 8:05 PM on March 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think my favorite signage is at Potbelly Sandwiches. The ordering process might get slightly confusing when its busy in there, but as soon as you walk in, there are loads of pleasant looking signs pointing you were to go and telling you what to do at each spot. Even when it's packed full of people in there, everything goes really smoothly.
posted by empath at 8:09 PM on March 11, 2010


OH lord, Penn Station. Even though I know where I'm going, half the time I wonder if I'm going the right way because of the confusing signage, or lack OF signage.
posted by ShawnStruck at 8:14 PM on March 11, 2010


This is one of the more interesting fpposts I've seen here in a while. Thanks parudox!
posted by archivist at 8:16 PM on March 11, 2010


In regards to the exit guy.... it reminds me of portal.
posted by MrLint at 8:25 PM on March 11, 2010


Some insane map-loving sign-interested bean counting tiny obsessed corner of my brain just exploded. Thank you.
posted by bunnycup at 8:34 PM on March 11, 2010


I think that I'd burn to death before figuring out what those green running man signs were.

Yes, but a red sign posted above a doorway would be basically invisible in a smoke-filled room - which is when you need it most.

In Japan, Taiwan they mount green exit signs (with a running man) down near the floor - where you should be crawling if there is smoke and fire. Also green is the color that the eye is most sensitive to. The eye is far less sensitive to red.
posted by three blind mice at 8:41 PM on March 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


Will GPS kill the sign?

Yes. On a related note, GPS will kill the map as well. Professionally, I have taken part regularly for years in this exercise where people have to give directions to one another: two people, both with maps of the same city. One has the start and finish points marked, the other has only the start points. The one with the start and finish points has to give directions to the other. It seemed a trivial exercise when it was first described to me, but almost no one can do it. Because of the screening process before they get to me, the majority of participants in the exercise are most of a generation younger than I am, and I really have no idea what students are taught where my school curriculum included geography. One of the complaints I have heard about the exercise is "my map only shows north, so there is no way to know where south and east and west are."

Roughly 85% of the participants, when flummoxed by the exercise, excuse their inability to understand a map by saying, "I just follow what my GPS says to do." When stories come up about GPS-guided drivers getting stuck in remote snow-bound areas for three days or stranded on a snowmobile trail or driving down railroad tracks into an oncoming train, some readers are incredulous, but I believe it entirely.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:11 PM on March 11, 2010 [6 favorites]


I'm really annoyed..or peeved..or something by all these predictions of ways that technology will totally obliterate anything that's not virtual or digital or expensive. There will always be people who can't afford this stuff or can't understand it or don't want it. It's like that concept is totally unimaginable to some people.
posted by amethysts at 9:16 PM on March 11, 2010 [5 favorites]


Roughly 85% of the participants, when flummoxed by the exercise, excuse their inability to understand a map by saying, "I just follow what my GPS says to do." When stories come up about GPS-guided drivers getting stuck in remote snow-bound areas for three days or stranded on a snowmobile trail or driving down railroad tracks into an oncoming train, some readers are incredulous, but I believe it entirely.

The other day, the husband and I ordered food delivered from a restaurant we order from fairly regularly (because we're lazy). About an hour after placing the order, I call to see what the deal is. The delivery woman says she's outside the house and no one is answering. I ask if she knocked on the second story door, because we're not on the first floor. She says yes. I go outside. There's no one there. I tell her that. She insists she's at my house. The GPS says so. She asks me for my address like three times. It's correct. I'm standing on the street at this point. Not a car in sight. I ask her what street she's on. She keeps repeating my address to me. She asks me to give her directions, but the only identifying landmark she's able to give me is the name of an apartment complex that doesn't come up on google. She tells me she'll "figure it out" and be there in a few minutes. After about ten, I go inside and start making dinner. Fifteen minutes later, the usual delivery guy comes by with our food, apologizing. He had to meet the woman in the center of town to pick up our order--she insisted that she was at our house but we weren't there. I still have no idea what happened. I mean, our city is laid out in a grid, and we're on a major road.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:36 PM on March 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


This was fascinating.

The running man's the way to go for me. Or a green 'EXIT'. I think if I saw something red dimly lit up, behind a cloud of smoke, I wouldn't head that way.

I'm sure signs as we currently think of them will all but disappear, but merely to make way for new signs. Ones that are virtual, that send a message to your phone to turn left, that project an arrow onto the floor that tells you where to go based upon what your phone looked at ten minutes ago, or whatever it may be.
posted by twirlypen at 9:44 PM on March 11, 2010


I really have no idea what students are taught where my school curriculum included geography.

I didn't do a great deal of geography in high school but did end up majoring in it at university, and as a recent student of geography I can say that things such as orienteering and the like aren't really focused on anymore (in Australia at least). Environmental and social issues (and at advanced levels, spatial analysis and GIS) are what geographical learning encompasses these days. The lack awareness of compass elements and the like is an unfortunate result but then these things don't get used enough to matter in most circumstances.

As it happens, I currently work in the GPS field (where knowledge of compass elements is important) and I would have to disagree with GPS taking over signs, if, for lack of any other reason, the officialdom that it represents. Part of my job, after all, involves using sign imagery to assign map information. In certain countries (even those as developed as Australia) a standardised electronic road plan is a far way away.

Personally, even as a kid I really digged the aesthetic of signs, so for that reason I hope they stick around.
posted by Serial Killer Slumber Party at 9:59 PM on March 11, 2010


GPS. I used to love it, but still depend on it, mostly because my far-sighted eyes have aged, and it's difficult to read fine details on maps. Trouble is, GPS "advanced" in a stupid way, and by that I mean it isn't as good at being interactive.

My first GPS was a Garmin IQue. Great little device. When the last attempt to update maps trashed the install, we bought a new machine. It's nice, does more, is faster and more accurate. However, it's crap if you want to look at maps and plan your route beyond taking the shortest/fastest. Where the IQue was wonderful to wander the map and look at things, the new device (Tomtom Go 930 traffic) seems to actively prevent/discourage that. The IQue was also a nice device when walking (except for how long it takes to get a fix).

I try to get my iPhone to make up for the walking part, but frankly, I'm finding the cell network unreliable. Too often, I can't get maps to load. Pity, the technology is wonderful, when it works.

As far as sign confusion goes, my favorite is really a language issue. In Germany, emergency exits are labeled "Notausgang". "Ausgang" is the out-way, the "not" is not a negative, rather, means emergency. It takes awhile before the double-takes stop and you just accept the 'not' prefix for what it is.
posted by Goofyy at 10:10 PM on March 11, 2010


Ugh Penn Station. Imagine adding up the cost of all those little delays and missed trains from millions of passengers going through the system every year.

What I want is simple. I want big, obvious, glowing signs and maps like those at airports. And commercial signage needs a 10ft restraining order from them. Like the ones at London Heathrow Terminal 5.
posted by polymodus at 10:13 PM on March 11, 2010


I like the parts where people made their own freeway signage and I wonder why that sort of thing isn't encouraged more. People have a lot of insight into road conditions near their homes.

Crossing the bridge to Ken Kesey's home in La Honda, there used to be a sign that said No Left Turn Unstoned, which of course makes perfect sense.
posted by twoleftfeet at 10:54 PM on March 11, 2010


When stories come up about GPS-guided drivers getting stuck in remote snow-bound areas for three days or stranded on a snowmobile trail or driving down railroad tracks into an oncoming train, some readers are incredulous, but I believe it entirely.

God. That new bicycle directions feature that Google just enabled: I just realized it's only a matter of time before some cyclists or joggers are mowed down by some wanker who's "just following Google".
posted by dhartung at 12:28 AM on March 12, 2010


At my previous job, where fire safety was an important issue, the fire exits where marked with a printed FIRE like the American signs, but in white on a green background, rather than in red. Having a quick look at a fire sign store online there are basically no red signs available. There are the printed signs, and the running man signs, but all in green.

As for mapping, I don't have a GPS and tend to just look at google maps and then print out the page if I need it, but one thing I find enormously useful is streetview. Being able to know what a destination or required turn will actually look like is enormously useful.
posted by markr at 12:55 AM on March 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


GPS will kill the map as well
I'm not so sure about that. In 1997, with the introduction of Raster charts the UK Hydrographic Office in its wisdom decided that the paper chart only had a few years to live. Today's chart agents are selling more paper charts than ever (as well as electronic ones). The world's mariners still want that large sheet of paper on the chart desk. The ability to navigate round the coffee stain included. I can't supply any citations here but as someone who is intrinsically involved in the maritime world, and has very close connections with an accredited chart agency I just state my observations.
I also believe that everyone who ventures into the great outdoors still takes a map even if carrying a GPS.
posted by adamvasco at 2:30 AM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


GPS is going to be one of those technologies that makes me feel old. The callow youth will scoff at my lack of GPS, wondering why I refuse to use one. What if I get lost? At that point, I'll snort, and explain that "back in my day, we didn't get lost." Which of course, is a patent lie, as I have a very good sense of direction, and my mother gets lost all the time even with maps.
posted by explosion at 4:10 AM on March 12, 2010


She insists she's at my house. The GPS says so.

I hope I'm not inadvertantly insulting you, but using a GPS to navigate Gainesville seems near the height of learned helplessness.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:19 AM on March 12, 2010


One of my favorite urban labyrinths is the NYC subway stop for Port Authority/Times Square. Even though the New York City subway signage is some of the easiest to comprehend, it took me dozens of attempts to finally figure out how to got from 9th Ave and W40th to Broadway and w43rd completely underground. I don't think any amount of signage could help some of do that on their first try.
posted by slogger at 6:00 AM on March 12, 2010


Thanks for linking this!
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 6:07 AM on March 12, 2010


Since I go through Penn Station every day to get to work, I have to say that our intrepid test person from the Salon Article (Part II in the FPP) did it all wrong (I would have gone to Amtrak through the LIRR concourse, as seen on photo 10 of the slideshow), but the place itself is utterly impossible to navigate without having been there hundreds of times. The simple lack of a centralized departure board system contributes significantly to this. For instance, as you come in from the 8th Avenue Line, you see all the LIRR departures on the "Little Big Board," as I call it, which is useless if you're taking Amtrak or NJ Transit. From the 7th Avenue Line there's a great "Big Board", which has all the LIRR destinations listed, along with the next two trains that will stop at those stations and what tracks they're on (if they've been assigned). Which is similarly useless for Amtrak or NJ Transit.

Another peeve about Penn is when one train is departing soon and another arrived a short bit ago from tracks that share the same platform. There are simply too many people by about an order of magnitude. Each platform has 3-5 stairwells (including escalators), which is nowhere near enough. This is especially bad on the Amtrak/NJ Transit side of the place because the platforms are only about 10 ft wide, where LIRR gets 2x-3x that space.
posted by Xoder at 6:19 AM on March 12, 2010


The first detailed London map on the first post, the one labelled 'A better "you are here" system', is rotated about a hundred degrees off north. That is, the top edge, is sort of west-south-west-ish. I work in the area shown on the map and I couldn't orient myself on it.

This is what we call "a Boris project".
posted by Hogshead at 6:28 AM on March 12, 2010


I still have no idea what happened. I mean, our city is laid out in a grid, and we're on a major road.

The problem is that the delivery person is a fucking moron.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:59 AM on March 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


Also, having grown up in both Florida and New Jersey, I can say I have seen both sides of the "How to Do Exit Signs Wrong" spectrum.

In Florida, they present a GIANT sign that alerts you to the fact that, at some point within the next hundred miles or so, your exit will appear. And every ten miles in-between. I'm guessing this is so all the old people aren't suddenly startled by the appearance of their exit, causing them to cut across five lanes of traffic to catch it. But it's annoying because you keep seeing signs for your exit, yet it's always "ahead" and not "next".

In New Jersey, the put the signs at the exit. I don't think I have to explain how asinine this is.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:06 AM on March 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


I heart Julia Turner.
posted by Kwine at 7:31 AM on March 12, 2010


I hope I'm not inadvertantly insulting you, but using a GPS to navigate Gainesville seems near the height of learned helplessness.

No, I agree! I kept asking her where she WAS, and she was totally unable to look at the street signs to tell me. I tried to explain that my street, NW Avenue X, is between NW Street A and NW Street B. No dice. I have no idea.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:34 AM on March 12, 2010


The first detailed London map on the first post, the one labelled 'A better "you are here" system', is rotated about a hundred degrees off north. That is, the top edge, is sort of west-south-west-ish. I work in the area shown on the map and I couldn't orient myself on it.

It is oriented in the direction you are facing when looking at the map.

This is a good idea for people who are not used to reading maps often as evidenced by the many people who need to rotate a paper map to fit with their surroundings, but not so good for people like myself who are very used to having North at the top.
posted by knapah at 7:54 AM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


The world's mariners still want that large sheet of paper on the chart desk.

The world's mariners are still taught how to read a map, which is increasingly viewed as an abstruse, archaic skill (something like heraldry or knowing the different collective nouns for each type of animal). My point was that an entire generation of adults -- and I have dealt only with a sample of them of course, but still more than a thousand over the past few years -- literally haven't the faintest idea how a map works. I believe this because they tell me over and over again, "I'm not familiar with maps," or "I've never used a map before," or, "I don't know how maps work."

Watching hundreds upon hundreds of pairs of people go through this exercise is painful to a Gen-Xer who spent countless hours as a kid poring over maps for fun (you'd better believe the map was the best part of my grandparents' National Geographic subscription). I am not talking about them being unfamiliar with dymaxion projections or knowing nothing of Waldo Tobler's key role in the history of cartogram generation, I'm talking about people looking at a map of a city on a lakeshore and being unable to work out that the blue part is the water.

The most startling part is that for reasons hard to explain briefly, the people doing this exercise are almost all from Western Canada. As adults they must surely have seen a representation of where their city is on a map of the country. Does the fact that it far off at the extreme left side of the map not give any indication to them of which direction "west" might be? No? Okay then.

Anyway, sorry for the derail. I did enjoy the FPP.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:38 AM on March 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


Penn Station's the biggest railway station in the country? Huh - I'd have thought there'd be a bigger one somewhere in the midwest.
I have to say that our intrepid test person from the Salon Article (Part II in the FPP) did it all wrong (I would have gone to Amtrak through the LIRR concourse, as seen on photo 10 of the slideshow)...
I wouldn't say it was all wrong. Practically, it makes very little difference which one of the parallel corridors you walk down if you're going from the LIRR/1,9 end to the Amtrak/NJTransit/A,C,E end. I agree she'd have been less lost if she jogged left (and up) at step 10, though, because she'd have hit all the NJTransit signage.
posted by Karmakaze at 8:43 AM on March 12, 2010


I heart Julia Turner.

Me too. 65 percent of the reason I listen to the Slate Culture Gabfest is to hear her occasionally do that ugh! that she does, sometimes in disgust, sometimes in delight.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 9:33 AM on March 12, 2010


ricochet biscuit : the majority of participants in the exercise are most of a generation younger than I am

I had a really strange realization recently; we are witnessing the beginnings of a generation who will have no idea what it's like to be lost.

They will most likely never experience that sensation of taking a country road, following it for twenty minutes through a couple of turns only to find they have absolutely no clue where they are, because someone in the car will invariably have something with GPS or cell tower triangulation.

I find the idea entirely weird. Because getting lost was the thing that made me able to find my way (or, at the very least, figure out where the hell I was on a map).

But now that I use GPS, I can see how easy it is to completely abdicated the need to pay attention to where I took a right or left, and as a result, I've found that I actually use my turn-based-direction GPS a lot less, and my Google-maps-on-my-phone GPS a lot more, because then I'm still making the decisions about how I get somewhere.
posted by quin at 10:12 AM on March 12, 2010


65 percent of the reason I listen to the Slate Culture Gabfest is to hear her occasionally do that ugh! that she does, sometimes in disgust, sometimes in delight.

Stephen Metcalf all saying "What do you think of the cultural phenomenon of the moment, Julia?" and I am thinking, "She is going to kind of hate it, just like I do, and she is going to explain to me exactly why we hate it" and then she does. *melts* If I were single I would probably be thoroughly consumed by a hopeless crush, but luckily I am already married to the absolute best woman in the world.
posted by Kwine at 10:38 AM on March 12, 2010


I hate that green running man. It's used here, and it just doesn't twig "exit" automatically in my brain -- and automatic understanding is pretty much what you want for signs, especially ones to be used in a crisis.

But now that I use GPS, I can see how easy it is to completely abdicated the need to pay attention to where I took a right or left, and as a result, I've found that I actually use my turn-based-direction GPS a lot less, and my Google-maps-on-my-phone GPS a lot more, because then I'm still making the decisions about how I get somewhere.

This has always been the case with me, sans tech, when I'm someplace new and with someone who knows where they're going. In that situation, I can take a given route a hundred times and never learn it. On my own, I do quickly, because it matters. But I use GPS the same way you do -- as a map -- so I can see what my options are in advance. Then again, the American voice model they used for the thing mangles the French names in this area so completely that there is no temptation to treat it as an authority.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 11:45 AM on March 12, 2010


Pilots (at least private pilots) still use paper charts. My flight instructor would often quote Bowditch: the prudent navigator uses all available forms of navigation. He loved GPS when it first came out, but it was just one more input. Another favourite phrase of his was "ground truth" -- when you could actually confirm your navigation by comparing it to what you could actually see.

For me the best part of paper charts is that you can write on them. Looking at an old chart takes me back to the flights I made using it.
posted by phliar at 11:46 AM on March 12, 2010


Never really noticed (due to not having been in the US), but that red color for EXIT does seem strange. It's definitely the running man over here, or a green "EXIT" (well, "UIT"). Come to think of it, red seems rarely used for indoor signs except fire hoses etc..
posted by Harry at 3:09 PM on March 12, 2010


In New Jersey, the put the signs at the exit. I don't think I have to explain how asinine this is.

When I lived in NJ, I thought that, compared to Quebec, it was a miracle of effective and clear signage.
posted by jeather at 7:34 PM on March 13, 2010


okay I left this tab open for, like, forever and have any of you seen that slideshow they promised of the reader-submitted maps and what they say about how we use maps? Because I was really looking forward to it and can't figure out where to find it. Can't get much more "later this month" on the publication date...
posted by whatzit at 4:10 PM on March 25, 2010


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