Visual Language Week 2: Signage and Information Systems

This week I read the six-part Slate article The Secret Language of Signs found some signs that were successful and some that were complete failures and disgraceful embarrassments  and I fixed up one of the more pathetic signs to my liking.

I also rediscovered an incredible resource for icons called The Noun Project. Which is where I got the lovely icons adorning this post.

Broken    icon_37330 Signs

Useless. Contextless. Factually erroneous. Illegible. Irrelevant. Confusing Misleading. Ugly. Outdated. Creepy. Smelly.

These are just a smattering of insults I’ve personally hurled at bad signage. Yes, some of them are hurtful and, one could probably argue, childish. But so what? Poor signage and thoughtless information systems are frustrating timesucks (note to self: add “frustating timesuck” to list of insults for in/animate objects).

Chances are if you’ve noticed signage it’s because it caused confusion or problems. Good signs are like fine service at a restaurant or international spies: their job is done properly if you don’t notice them doing it.

Here are a few examples that I spotted this week of poor signage.

“The Foreigner”

Before you call me jingoistic or insensitive, please keep in mind that the assignment was to observe and report bad signage.


Spelling and grammatical errors can render an otherwise fine sign laughable.

 “The Novel”

Here’s a scenario: I’m new in town. I arrived in NYC on a red eye in the early morning hours before color’s breathed into the sky. I’ve barely had time to change clothes and grab coffee. But here I am on the subway. I’m focused on one thing only. Which is getting where I’m going. I don’t have time for a litany of do’s and don’ts which seem like common sense to 99% of people.

Here’s another scenario: I’ve lived in New York for over a year and a half and I’ve never even noticed this sign before I was literally assigned to look it.


It’s too much information for a sign that’s trying to convey a simple code of conduct. (That’s why I’ve taken the liberty of re-designing it below.)

My Fix

Sometimes simplicity is the ultimate complexity.


I understand that this doesn’t explicitly cover all of the rules laid out on the original sign. And that’s kind of the point. This covers a broader and yet somehow more specific set of rules. The short, to-the-point copy is even more no nonsense than the long list. It’s also not so patronizing.

In any case, here’s the paradox: the people who need to understand that sign are the least likely to read it.

Broken Light Bulb by Gregory Sujkowski from The Noun Project
Sign by WARPAINT Media Inc. from The Noun Project
Sign by Murali Krishna from The Noun Project