Signage gets fresh direction

These books and website on the blizzard of signs that direct our lives offers a guide to the quizzical, the hilarious, and the sophisticated science behind their creation.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

You're entering an airport and become overwhelmed by a blizzard of directional signs you need to decipher to find your plane. Or you're driving on an unfamiliar highway and an unexpected fork in the road bewilders. Or you're strolling through a strange city and one wrong turn leads into the wrong side of town. These are commonplace experiences worldwide – and a number of new books and a website present the humorous and weighty sides of navigational signs in public places, signs possessing an often overlooked importance in helping us steer our lives sagely.

'1000 Signs' (Taschen, $14.95)

True to the title, this is a lively compilation of 1,000 photographs of navigational signs in public places worldwide. Slotted into a dozen categories, including transportation, animal warnings, restroom location, child crossings, and dangers at work sites, the images disclose both cultural similarities (the US-invented, octagonal-shaped STOP sign is eight-sided everywhere) and cultural differences. Exemplifying difference is the Haitian sign forbidding voodoo rituals. Picture a white diagonal slash crossing a drawing of a red altar decorated with glowing candles and a sacrificial chicken. Interspersed throughout the book are brief paragraphs about issues of industrial pollution, child abuse, traffic fatalities, back stories giving even the most lighthearted signs (an arrow pointing to "DIVERSION") a surprisingly unsettling, sometimes shocking meaning.

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'Signspotting,' 'Signspotting 2' (Lonely Planet, $9.99) and signspotting.com

Doug Lansky possesses the uncanny knack of unearthing photographs of hilariously misconceived public signs. He has parlayed his status as funny-sign maven into a nationally syndicated column, a series of books published by the travel book company Lonely Planet, and a highly entertaining and interactive website where viewers vote on the day's most laughable signs. They can also submit to Lansky their favorite misguided sign photos for his publication. Howlers include "BEWARE OF INVISIBILITY," spotted on a Tanzanian highway, and the quizzical sign in the Chinese city of Suzhou where one should "Beware of safety!"

'Signs of My Cities' (CreateSpace, $18)

Photographer Megan Carney directs her focus exclusively on her hometown of the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and Saint Paul, with a particular slant toward the gently quirky. A motel sign adjacent to a new stadium under construction proclaims: "WELCOME. BE PATIENT. ENJOY THE CONSTRUCTION. WE ARE." Several signs reflect the area's burgeoning college student population, many with strong countercultural opinions. A sign in an independently owned cafe warns, "Friends don't let friends drink at Starbucks." This homemade book exudes a DIY charm and youthful zest.

'The Wayfinding Handbook: Information Design for Public Places' (Princeton Architectural Press, $24.95)

After being shocked about how culturally and politically revealing navigational signs can be, and after laughing at signage gaffes, you might be curious about how these signs are created. Author David Gibson has been an internationally recognized, professional sign designer for years, and the fruits of his labor are found in this clearly written, well-illustrated overview about creating navigational signs. Gibson indicates how scientific research about how humans navigate unfamiliar turf, a process called "wayfinding," has changed the field of sign design profoundly. Issues about sign shape, color, and cross-cultural comprehensibility are now linked to issues pertaining to spatial cognition, digital technologies, and environmental sustainability. Even untrained, mistake-prone signmakers deserve our gratitude for stepping up to the Promethean challenge of helping us find our way in this increasingly labyrinthine world.

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