Public Signage Created by Nonprofessional Designers
Reflexive Paper, 27 September 2001
Elizabeth Boling

Rural Indiana.
Photo: Fleet Walker.
Collected 1998.
Rural Alberta.
Photo: Earl Misanchuk.
Collected 2000.

The texts, their description and the context in which they were found

I began collecting photographs of public informational signage* created by nonprofessional designers several years ago with the idea that examining this particular type of display could help me teach instructional technology students (who, most typically, do not have professional visual design backgrounds) to create informational displays in ways that make sense to them. In particular, I have been interested in making observations across my collection that might suggest some common problems confronting the designers of such displays, and the solutions that untrained designers devise to solve those problems. A common example might be the "too much information and not enough room to display it" problem, and common solutions might include squeezing or reducing text to fit the available space, editing out information from the display, or converting some information to graphical form. Drawing on the description of method in Christopher Alexander's The Timeless Way of Building (1979), I intend eventually to discover which solutions result in displays that exhibit the "quality that has no name," or quality that produces a satisfied, delighted reaction in those who view and use such signage for getting information in public places.

The two texts (samples of signage) that I have selected for my initial analysis are similar -- two tokens (instantiations) of not only the type (category) "public signage" but of a subtype that might be termed "seasonal roadside advertising." (In fact, designers who focus on signage distinguish a subcategory, "informal signage," that overlaps with the samples in this collection to a large degree. They generally throw into this category signage that is temporary, special-purpose and created on-the-spot or without benefit of commercial production. However, many of the items I collect are permanent, serve purposes that signage designers consider to be "formal" (labeling locations, for example), and are selected by me because they meet the last criterion -- created without benefit of commercial production.) Both samples were encountered out of doors -- one in situ along the road in Alberta, and the other against a barn with other discarded boards being saved for some possible use on our 35-acre property in rural Indiana.The one from Canada was posted along a fence line, placing it parallel to the road and visible from the road.

They are produced on plywood (the "eggs" specimen may be painted onto a thin sheet of metal) that has been given a background coat of white paint. The lettering is applied in black paint. Given the indexical signs of weathering on both boards, one assumes the paint used was chosen for its ability to withstand harsh conditions out of doors. Having been present at collection of the first specimen ("produce"), I know that it contains nail holes at various points near its corners. It may have been nailed to a wall or a fence when it was in regular use -- although the back of the board showed evidence of another sign having been painted on it and used to the point of wearing away, so one cannot be certain whether it was during that previous use that the sign was nailed up. This one may have been used by propping it against some support convenient to the road. The second specimen ("eggs") was collected on a road trip and was displayed as shown -- propped against an existing fence line with its own weight keeping it in place.

The "produce" specimen is lettered in upper and lower case, with uneven spacing between letters and words and the two lines of text. The "eggs" specimen is lettered in all capitals with squared-off strokes forming the letters, and more regularity in the size, shape and spacing of the letters.

Watching myself conduct the analysis

I have lived in several rural or semi-rural locations in north America, and driven through many more on trips across the country. Therefore I am familiar with a script of informal commerce whereby individuals who grow or harvest food items themselves (vegetables, fruits, eggs, honey) place some of these items out of doors on a bench, under a tree, within a small stand and advertise them for sale to passersby on the road.

In an elaborate venture, the items may be displayed in a formal case with prices marked and an attendant (often a child or older member of the family) to wait on those who stop. Many times, the items are left with a receptacle for money (an old coffee can), a handwritten note giving the price, and every expectation that those who stop will pay the right amount for what they take away.

Realizing that I am familiar with this practice, I assumed when seeing both these sign boards that they were part of similar scripts. For this reason also the sign board reading only "Fresh Farm Produce" conveys a more complete message to me when I see it alongside the road in farming country -- "Fresh Farm Produce for Sale."


Why conduct this analysis?

I conduct this analysis to discover how it is that I know that these specimens of signage were created by nonprofessional designers. Maybe you look at the photographs here and think this is an obvious conclusion, but while my colleague, Earl Misanchuk, and I were collecting photos in Saskatoon one day we realized that we were having some difficulty in multiple instances deciding whether or not a particular specimen under consideration was created by a nonprofessional, or was created by someone hoping for a "rustic" or naive look in the sign, or was created by a professional who was simply not a very good designer of signage.

It is important to know how I am making the decision to collect one sign and not another because the long-term goals of my study require that I examine specimens that are not informed, except through consumption of other signs by their creators, by the standardized and accepted principles of design taught to professional signage designers.

Watching myself conduct the analysis

In college, as an MFA student in printmaking, I learned that naive art was natural and somehow imbued with superior qualities on account of its lack of self-consciousness. In addition to this learned perspective, I also gravitated toward developmental and perceptual psychology in my independent studies and was immensely excited by a lecture on children's drawings delivered here at IU in which the speaker spoke against some explanations of why children draw as they do ("they can only see people's faces and legs and that's why they draw tadpole figures") and presented a model in which the child's motor skills and consciousness interact continuously resulting in the stages of drawing that children typically exhibit. As a direct consequence of that lecture, I set about learning to draw with my non-dominant hand and did so for some time, preferring the conceptual process that accompanied this inexpert graphical production to the accomplished and less thoughtful work I had learned to do so well with my other hand. In fact, my non-dominant hand became quite practiced and was eventual not useful as a catalyst anymore.

At that time I was not using the other-hand technique just to produce quirky images, or even to produce images with naive qualities that shocked on account of their more adult perspectives (although I did some of that) -- however, this experience of mine, and others in a similar vein that I observed among my peers at the time, does now lead me to attend to the faux-naive and deliberately low-skill looks that come and go in visual fashion. I am inclined to be suspicious of deliciously naive-looking work, and also suspicious of myself for seeking in it only the chance "fresh" elements that can be grabbed and savored vicariously as if I had incorporated them into a physical work.


Paradigmatic analysis

Reviewing Chandler's advice on conducting a semiotic analysis (Chandler, 2001), the paradigmatic analysis questions make the most sense to me with reference to the two texts I have selected since they focus on formal properties of the text. I am contrasting the informal signage specimens to principles and practices in commercial signage design to try out the idea that it is the violation of those principles/practices that marks these specimens as non-professional.


Interpretation in context ... Compared to principles or assumptions made in commercial signage and information design training ...

Watching myself conduct the analysis

Medium of presentation ... opportunistic. These specimens are produced on material that is ready to hand, will stand up to the requirements of use, and is not valuable enough to be used in some other, more critical, function. In at least one of the cases, the sign board has been used before on the other side at a different time, and in some specimens I have collected the boards have been repainted over and over.

The information display is utilitarian. Since the display has to be seen from the road it needs a large ground to hold large letters, but sturdy materials are costly. If a surface can be found that is weather-worthy but otherwise unfit for more critical purposes, this is the appropriate decision to make.

In both cases, however, the backgrounds of these displays have been painted white. Paint is not cheap either (and I have seen informal signage in which only the area under the individual words was painted white), but in this case the visibility, and possibly the workmanship of the display is considered (see production value below).

The background is as important as the foreground. Since the two elements are mutually reinforcing and defining, consideration of the size and shape of the background is especially critical at the beginning stages of designing the display.


I am assuming a frugality model of behavior and decision-making here that may or may not be valid. It is one that I associate with rural people, but I know that assumption is fraught with culturally-specific components (not entirely spurious since my texts are both North American ones) -- everything from settler and depression era views of farmers as hard-scrabble folk making due with little to political rhetoric painting the silent majority as unassuming, no-frills people who will sacrifice their own wants for the good of children and country. Add to that a family tree with Appalachian mountain folk on one side and potato-famine Irish emigrants on the other.


Typography ... hand-produced with low level of mechanical or measured technique. Printed letterforms rather than cursive ones have been used in both displays, and the letterforms are completely delineated, to the extent that some are distorted from the original strokes that made them up by what appears to be an attempt to make those strokes smooth in their defining contours. The spacing between letters, words and lines is noticeably uneven in the "produce" specimen, and is not precise in the "egg" specimen even though that one shows more evidence of an attempt to make it so. The letterforms themselves are also variable, more so in the one specimen than the other but considerably variant from the typeset quality common to commercially produced displays. In this area the displays shown indexical evidence of care being taken to produce uniform, readable letters. The "eggs" specimen also shows the same strokes being used for the same letterforms (note the "g" and "e" forms), and shows that some kind of underlying uniform "grid" may have been envisioned by the creator along which these strokes are laid out. Salen discusses the "visual voice-over" of commercial, standardized typography as a neutral and objective tone -- "utopian, belonging nowhere, regionless, without accent" (2001). She is referring in part to the mechanically-perfected typefaces in which we tend to see most of the informational displays presented to us from commercial sources (New York, Times, Helvetica, Verdana, Ariel -- to name a few that word-processing has made familiar), and I would extend her observations to the mechanically-perfected layout of that information as well. Although designers speak of the "warm" qualities that a certain typeface may have when the original dies for it are cut by hand, or the algorithmic hints cause tiny variations in a digital face on purpose, the gross impact is still expected to be that of consistency and intentionality in layout. This is true for faux-informal faces as well. Load up a grunge font sometime and compare its overall consistency to that of a truly nonprofessional sample of written material.

How did I get the "standard" expectations I have for what typography will look like in public places? I realize that I am holding these specimens up against two sets of expectations -- one I hold from having consumed a lot of commercially-produced signage, and the other from having professional experience in information design. They pretty much overlap in terms of their content, but the second allows me to name parts of the first in ways that an inexperienced person might not do. In my experience, though, the untrained person eventually points out most of the same gross system components that the professional does.

Production value ... sufficiency to the point of being completely stripped-down. In this context the stripped-down black and white treatment implies that the vegetables for sale will be as fresh as humanly possible. No extra effort has gone in to the signage, which verifies that the creator of the sign is primarily a vegetable grower or hen-raiser, and not a sign designer. The "down-homeness" of the overall production serves as a dynamic sign that the people here "know how to raise produce," even though the producers of this immediate sign may actually be terrible gardeners and careless keepers of chickens.

In commercial design, the extreme spareness of the black-letters/white ground presentation here might be used, as it was in the 70s and 80s in U.S. grocery stores, to symbolize an almost aggressive eschewing of frills, decoration or embellishment to keep costs down or to communicate a sense of virtuous abstemiousness. The product was thereby assumed to have been processed in a stripped-down way, so that a can of generic beans might be expected to yield limp, grayish beans instead of crispy green ones.


Production value, which I know when I see, is a really tough concept to pin down. It is contextually dependent as this analysis shows -- and that's helpful, actually. I have waffled around about production value in more than one class presentation without a good vocabulary to try and express the inherent paradox in the concept -- black and white label in the grocery store means crummy food, black and white sign on the roadside means yummy food.


End notes on reflexion ...

I deliberately restricted the scope of this analysis severely in order to make time to do it -- for example, I have a number of international samples in my collection and hope to gather more. This analysis does not touch on any of those although several were included in my original notes.I restricted it further between my handwritten notes and the typed paper because every bit of it began to expand so that the short list I thought I started with was well out of hand in no time. And this document is neither finished nor especially organized.

While the expansion and connectedness that occurs during an analysis effort is nicely revealing of the interconnectedness of signs, it is leaving me a little impatient for some way to frame such an analysis toward a useful end. The contemplation of this or that rhizomatic twist is very absorbing and I have the strong feeling that I do not want my analysis to devolve into a mental game of Tetris - satisfying, but ultimately yielding only a score that indexes my accomplishment as a player. (This particular game was very short-lived!)

How are my own students to make use of either such an analysis or the insights coming out of it? In fact, part of the analysis on my original list that I did not get to here dealt with embellishments (the two specimens considered here are almost free of embellishment), and what it may be used to mean. Perhaps my impatience is only that the little sliver of work that I have done here is just too slim to bridge from an exercise in trying on vocabulary to an illustration of some useful viewpoint.


Alexander, C. (1979). The timeless way of building. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chandler, Daniel (1994). Semiotics for Beginners [WWW document] URL [26 September 2001].

Salen, K. (2001). "Surrogate multiplicities: Typography in the age of invisibility." Visible Language, 35 (2), pp. 132-153.

Appreciation and credits for sign photos contributed to the collection and used in this paper:
Earl Misanchuk -- Alberta, Canada
Fleet Walker -- Nashville, Indiana

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*signage ... professional architects and other public space designers use the term "signage" to refer to systems of signs (physical labels and pointers (indexes!) and lists and warnings) that are posted to help people navigate safely and effectively through those places. In this paper I find that although the term feels a little pedantic, I am using it because to say "signs" gets too confusing. I realize that I want to figure out a more graceful way to juggle terms as I progress in this area of research.

Elizabeth Boling
28 September 2001