What’s behind the signs? A tale of a village green… or not.

Today in Portsmouth The Ranger was on his way to look at some nice shingle dunes when he saw a remarkable sign at the roadside, and had to ask his host to stop the car so it could be examined. A small parcel of land was surrounded by a new wooden fence, and prominently placed at two locations were some massive, highways style metal signs with some rather curious text on them – here’s one:

Sign at Eastney

Not the usual sort of thing one might expect, brand new, and rather strangely worded. Why was such a lot of money spent on such odd, over-specified signs? And that turn of words ‘sports and pastimes’… sounds familiar? It should do. Behind this simple phrase on a sign lies a big story. Let’s see if we can root it out. A bit of digging on the Portsmouth City Council website reveals that on 23/02/2004 there was a planning application for “Construction of 2 three storey blocks and 3 four storey blocks comprising 176 apartments”. The area included the site now sporting the new signs. Continue reading What’s behind the signs? A tale of a village green… or not.

What the font?

Recently at work The Ranger had his attention drawn by a designer colleague to a remarkable untapped resource – the Tourism Font. It’s been used for years for various purposes, and comprises a set of standard symbols for tourism purposes – like this one, with which you ought to be familiar:

Country Park symbol

Recognise it? Of course you do. There are plenty of other similar emblems on the list that are very handy. But of course, there are a few others, and that’s where the fun starts. Continue reading What the font?

Redundant signs dilute the message

On the ferry today The Ranger was having his usual rant about counterproductive safety signs (the last one was on the ferry too, remember?) when a fantastic specimen drove into view:

The Lord's Taverners minibus

Do you see the problem? It’s more redundant signage. These unnecessary signs, wherever they are found, actually make things worse by diverting attention from signs that really are important and worth reading. Look more closely:

The Lord's Taverners minibus

Now, it’s hardly fair to criticise such a worthy bus – but really, if the occupants are not aware of the methodology for opening the door, it’s a bit worrying. Maybe there is some new statutory requirement for such signs, although that would be news to this Ranger. If so, there are a lot of happy sign-makers who are going to have a lot of work on. The Ranger went around the other side and was even more concerned to see that the driver’s side was similarly adorned. Let’s hope the drivers were not in need of such instruction. The Ranger did notice that the front of the bus did not bear a sign saying ‘Do not lie down in front of this vehicle whilst it is in motion‘. He was just about to try this when his companions manhandled him away to the safety of the upper lounges, where more signs were provided to calm his fevered brain…

Simple signs: The Ranger rants on a ferry

A topic which has been on The Ranger’s mind at work recently is signage, and how best to erect notices to indicate country parks, nature reserves and other sites. Before you even erect it, a sign needs to have a clear purpose and a prospect of success in communicating its message. There are at least two important priorities for most signs at park entrances – firstly, to get over the message that this is a special place, with a name, in which you can expect and do certain things; and secondly, that it is run by some organisation, which not only pays for the signs but probably has its own set of corporate design standards. Whilst achieving these two objectives it is important not to spoil the historic landscape and natural beauty which the visitors may have come to admire. A tricky set of priorities to balance out. The basic problem is how to communicate what is potentially a lot of information, some of it conflicting. The answer, in short, is to keep it simple, stupid. But that’s harder than it might seem. Here’s a case study to show what happens when you don’t achieve that simplicity of signage. On a recent trip to the mainland The Ranger was sat on the ferry pondering signs when he was struck by the barrage of signage on a wall in the passenger lounge. It was a dull crossing so he was feeling pedantic – be warned. Here is an overview:

Signage on the Wightlink ferry

Don’t worry, more detail follows. Just check out the whole display. The Ranger counts nine different signs (there are two really tiny ones under the alarms), one of which is an advertisement, partly obscured by the bin. What is the main message you read from this confusing mish-mash? That’s right: “Our coffee will make you fart“. The rest is pretty much lost. But what were they trying to say? Let’s look further:

Signage on the Wightlink ferry

Yes, there’s quite a lot there that could be analysed, but concentrate on what might perhaps be the most important safety message – the lifejacket instructions. Apart from being almost the smallest text there, it’s fairly clear, but it ought to be pointed out that this sign includes the words ‘this is a muster station’. Actually, the on-board recorded safety announcements which every voyage is cursed by make it perfectly clear where the muster stations are – and they are not here. So here’s one important lesson: get your facts right, and make sure all signs are consistent. The next issue concerns the function of the door to the right of the signs. What’s behind it? Two signs say it is a ‘Nursing mothers room‘ or ‘Nursing mothers facilities‘, but it also might be ‘Disabled Persons Toilet‘, ‘Gentlemens Toilet‘, or possibly even ‘Bar & Snacks‘. There are just too many signs here to be sure. What’s more, except for the more-or-less redundant disabled logo all of these signs would be fairly incomprehensible to anyone who couldn’t read English. Luckily there is a sign on the door itself:

Signage on the Wightlink ferry

Hmm… that really doesn’t clarify matters much. Is it a bomb-disposal facility? A laptop-charging station? A chapel of rest? Probably something to do with Pokemon. Oh, enough. Surely, any more is just too much. There are plenty of excellent examples of signs which communicate these messages much more simply. This is the best lesson to learn from this example: less signage is more. So, will these lessons be drawn out to inform decisions about country park signage? The Ranger will keep you informed in future posts: meanwhile, if you have any examples good or bad, feel free to suggest them below.

Mimicry amongst fast-food restaurant logos

Over at Randomconnections.com they’ve come up with a fascinating theory that excites the relics of zoology still festering somewhere at the back of what The Ranger once liked to call his professional training. It goes like this. Look at this image:

American fast food logos

Spotted it yet? Randomconnections says:

Notice how all of these companies use shades of red and yellow in their logos? One might argue that Waffle House doesn’t really have red, but their buildings have red trim just below the roofline… One other one not visible above, but with the same color scheme is Pizza Hut. I have to wonder why all of these fast food and convenience centers use the same colors. Is there something about yellow and red that imply speed or quick service? Perhaps there is something even more basic going on here.

It’s an intriguing idea. They are suggesting that, just as animals and plants evolve to resemble each other for various reasons, so fast-food outlets might do the same – and for similar reasons. So, to take perhaps the best-known example, vespid wasps are yellow-and-black; thus predators learn that if you bite a yellow-and-black insect, you might well get stung. This means that if another, harmless, insect looks yellow-and-black too, they too might get eaten less often. This is known as Batesian mimicry. Similarly, a species that does sting might evolve to look like a wasp – that way, both species benefit as a predator that eats one will avoid the other too. So bees look pretty much like wasps in many ways, with similar warning colours, and this type of mimicry is called Müllerian mimicry. It’s a really great theory. Looking at the photo in the original article does show a remarkable similarity. But if this theory is to be tested, it needs to make a prediction. We’ll assume it’s the case that evolutionary pressures do act in such environments – that’s an assumption we won’t address here, in case some tedious sort starts on about intelligent design. As the original observer looked at US franchises The Ranger had an initial look at UK ones… only to find that the main players are more or less the same ones. Oh dear. Too late to study that one – perhaps the anthropologists will be able to do it retrospectively or something. So he turned his attention to an even more prominent sector of the retail market – supermarkets. Like fast-food shops, they are very competitive, and have very strong, all-pervading branding that is used on a huge variety of buildings, products and other stuff. Unlike fast-food shops, they are mainly of indigenous provenance rather than introduced from the US. Let’s consider some logos:

UK supermarket logos

Hmm… Curious. It almost seems as though the opposite ‘effect’ is in operation here. These logos could not be more different. Each one has a dominant pair of colours, except M&S (a retailer with a somewhat different market) with one, and of those eleven colours not one is repeated. What’s more, the typography is very different, and even the styles seem to vary from the gentle and comforting Somerfield to the brutalist no-nonsense Morrisons. So The Ranger judges that the hypothesis has not been confirmed – there is no convergent evolution of mimicry amongst retail brands. Do you agree? Interestingly, there is also the possibility that in this second sample, there was a divergent force at work. If so, it seems possible that it is the product of a force or process which also caused the convergence observed by Randomconnections.com. Like all good research, this suggests that more work is needed. Apply below with your best theories and observations, please! The Ranger found this via Boing Boing – let’s see more zoology in Boing Boing, eh?