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01/04/2004: "Notice Of Mediocrity"


NFT Feature|AMP|#160;|AMP|#160;Signs: you see them everywhere. Signs are a vital and daily part of our lives, conveying important information to us in every imaginable situation. Presenting information is a sign's purpose, however the context of that information is equally important. A sign can imply authority, danger, disposability, exclusivity, friendliness, calm, and even humour. Unfortunately I've come across a lot of signs that are only adequate for imparting information and downright fail in their duty to provide a proper context for that information. Generally, such failures belong to the hand-made sign.


All too often I see hand-drawn signs being used. Some are temporary, and might be excusable, such as an out-of-order sign on a vending machine. However, I'm noticing many signs that seem to be permanent or semi-permanent, which I find inexcusable. Why? We live in an era of ubiquitous desktop publishing - there are no excuses anymore to illegibly scrawl a misspelled note on a sheet of cardboard, paper, or whatever is handy in orange permanent marker, or an equally improper marking device. Go to your computer, use your word processor for 30 seconds, hit "print", and you have a quality sign that does not offend. It may not have the visual context that a proper sign would, but a lack of improper look-and-feel is better than the wrong one.

There are numerous examples of the practice of hastily made signs. My local grocery store is one such offender. They are open 24 hours a day, and recently implemented a "night entrance" policy. The front doors are locked, and a side entrance in plain sight of the cashiers is used between 1 and 7 am. That's fine - it's a safety and security issue that I applaud. However, the signs for said night entry are a piece of paper taped to the door ("Enter Here, 1-7am"), and, even worse, a scrap of cardboard taped to a stand outside on the sidewalk ("Night Entrance, 1-7am"). At only a couple of weeks old, this cardboard was already waterlogged and showing its age. It is still there, now into its 3rd distorted, waterlogged, ripped month. It was ugly to begin with, and is even more of an eyesore now.

Here's a hint, people: go to your local copy shop. They can make you a nice sign - some can even make colour signs on tarps - that will go a long way to conveying a sense of quality about your business. Hand-made signs made by your cashier detract from your image. If you absolutely have to make a sign by hand, for goodness sakes make sure it's at least legible, if not also spelled correctly.

Speaking of legibility: using a ballpoint pen to draw balloon letters for a poster-size sign is a bad idea. Although not a common practice, I've seen this method of sign-making enough times to have to include it in this rant. The typical implementation is a large piece of coloured Bristol board with large balloon letters printed on it. Unfortunately, the creators of these signs obviously never stand further back than an arm's length to their creations, and thereby never realize that big letters do not guarantee legibility, unless a minimum amount of contrast exists. For bigger letters, use a THICKER line, or fill in the letters (and not with pen scribbles).

This pet peeve of mine against poorly made signs has been brewing for a while, but did not have enough fuel to blossom into a full-fledged article until just recently. I most cases the signs that really grate on me visually are used by businesses. Why, I can't say. Perhaps that is simply where I notice them the most. However, I was reminded during my travels over the holiday season that signs are used everywhere, and thereby handmade signs can flourish anywhere.

The specific instance that added to my ire was seen at the check-in counter in the Los Angeles airport while coming back home after my holiday vacation. Security has been substantially beefed-up since I was last there, including a new baggage pre-screening area right after the airline check-in counter. In addition to this scanning machine there are three tables where a security agent can randomly pre-screen your luggage even before you get to the check-in counter. These tables back onto the check-in lineup, and was the first instance of a handmade sign truly failing in conveying the context of its message.

To prevent people from resting themselves or their baggage on these tables, a part of each table have a back wall. Of course, this back wall only covers about half of each table, and thereby allows ample room for someone to sit on the table or rest a bag thereon. Some bright soul decided that this was highly improper, and whipped up a sign to tell people not to do this. When I got there, I saw a piece of white paper that had block printing in red marker, saying something about not resting baggage on the tables.

I say "something" because the sign was affixed with a single piece of packing tape at the top, allowing the sides to rip and curl up, obscuring a good third of the sign. Only if you bothered to push the curled edges back did you understand that no part of your body should rest on there, either. Thus, this sign failed to both properly convey all the required information to waiting passengers, and really did not live up to the authority that it should have imparted to the message either. I will give partial credit for using block letters in red marker.

That was not the only sign that failed in its duty. Not ten steps away was another sign that had even one more strike against it than most do. After checking in, I had to get into another lineup at the front end of a baggage-scanning machine, where security personnel would electronically scan my baggage. I overheard the security agent tell the woman in front of me to go back around to the beginning of the line and watch to see that her bags successfully made it through the scanning. He didn't tell me to do so, but I followed the lady just to be certain. Lo and behold, another handmade sign.

This time the sign was at least fully visible, despite being another office-paper-and-packing-tape affair. It said, "Wait here to ensure your bagged passes security". Simple enough, right? Well, it was sadly written in blue highlighter, very much softening the tone of what should have been another authoritative warning sign. What was even worse was its placement. The scanning machine is enclosed in a square cubicle, with the lineup starting at one corner and covering two sides, ending at the opposite corner. The security agent that takes your bag is at the end of the line, whereas this area where you are supposed to wait and see if your bag makes it through is at the beginning of the line. Not only was this sign's messaged toned down to a lavender whisper by its blue highlighter markings, its location rendered it nearly useless.

So, what am I trying to say here? Taking about a sign's look and feel and the context in which it provides information is pretty metaphysical stuff, and about as abstract as I normally get. What my message boils down to is: When making a sign, take some time and do a quality job. Use the right materials and aesthetics. No one will ever fault you for having a well-made sign - in fact, no one will notice it. However, a crappy sign sticks out like a sore thumb, and detracts from your credibility. Trust me.

mr.ska
nft@myrealbox.com

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