Are signs really that interesting? – A photo essay

I. Love. Signs. I thought it was a strange fascination at first until I learned more about the art and science of way finding. Many jurisdictions have full time staff, sometimes teams, dedicated to figuring out how best to make their cities more navigable. Yes, navigable is a word. I heard it at a smart people conference once and was like *record scratch*.

I applied for a job once to work on New York City’s roll out of a new way-finding system and in learning about the job opportunity, I learned a ton about the effort that goes into the signage you find in a touristic area. It is a feat of science, psychology, and graphic design that signs provide much needed order and preemptive guidance to drivers and pedestrians, no matter their level of familiarity with a place.

Signs are quite mundane and easy to overlook, until they suddenly signify things you don’t understand. In my travels, I have found that depending on where you are, a cautionary sign that you’re used to seeing with certain words and colors will be exactly the same or completely different. Why these differences and similarities? My best guess is that these are manifestations of cultural norms (a preference for certain colors, pictures, or script) entangled with legacies of colonialism (the influence of Western occupation) and an ever-globalizing society (having to universalize and make accessible places as more people travel between places for leisure and commerce). While there are international norms governing roadway signage (I think), differences and similarities across other types of signs are undoubtedly the product of a web of intercultural histories. Below are some of the signs that caught my eye!

You don’t have to know French to instantly recognize this as a stop sign. If you’re a Westerner, you have been seeing red octagonal signs with white lettering your entire life. While I don’t typically think twice when I see these at home, for some reason, the monotony of this instantly captured my attention while walking down the sidewalk in Montreal.


French stop sign in Montreal, Canada


Ok. When I first walked past this sign in Porto, Portugal I did a double take. Men stealing children? That seemed befitting, but obviously a bit dramatic. Presumably, this is a children and people crossing type of yield sign. The urgency of it is comical and by the looks of the little girl, she is not about that urgent life.

Children crossing sign in Oporto, Portugal

Children crossing sign in Oporto, Portugal


When it’s time for pedestrians to cross the street in Medellin, Colombia you don’t simply get a static walk signal. You get this little green character bopping along their merry way. It’s cutesy and kind of mesmerizing to watch. Interested to hear the traffic planners’ rationale for going with this animated walk signal instead of the old static one. Is this a trend in newly developing urban districts? One urbanist (someone enthusiastic about cities) argues that the cutesification of anything related to crossing signals is dangerous and ill-focused.


It looks like I’m trespassing, going somewhere I am not allowed right? Except, this is the entrance to a relatively popular water hole in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. The Blue Hole is charming, but getting there is a little crazy. You have to drive up a mountain along a road (and I use the word road very very loosely), bypass a few fake checkpoints where locals will try to con you into paying in order to pass (it’s free!), drive along more cliff-like road that you’re almost positive is a roadway of meteor craters, and then finally you get to the top. You do all of that to find yourself staring down this sign. Enter through this gate where you will briefly question whether it is okay to trespass onto this property to see an unattended tourist attraction.


Seemingly trespassing as I walk into a tourist attraction, The Blue Hole, Ocho Rios, Jamaica


Ahhh, my beloved stop sign. How art thou? Como estas? If this word was not plastered on a red octogonal sign, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what it meant. I began my two week backpacking trip through Colombia with this walk around this cute neighborhood in Barranquilla (Shakira’s hometown). In Colombia, I was reminded at every turn that my Spanish was terrible and no one cared about my feelings. Thus, I desperately depended on signs and context clues to make my way!

Stop sign in Barranquilla, Colombia


I know not a single work in Dutch. Yet, I snapped a pic of this sign anyway because it looked important. I later discovered what it meant “WATCH OUT!!! TOAD MIGRATION Volunteers at work” How awesome is that?

Entering Vondelpark through one of many entry points, this sign conveying something about toads in Amsterdam, The Netherlands


Me. Hairnet.

Me. Hair net.

I’ll confess, my Spanish vocabulary is severely limited. While I can surmise what this sign is instructing based on the pictorial figures, it is still my best guess what exactly cofia means without looking it up. As I toured the Jose Cuervo Tequila distillery in the magical town of Tequila, Mexico (that’s how everyone refers to it, it’s hilarious), I was reminded over & over that I was traversing a hazardous workplace governed by strict rules imposing law & order. I looked crazy in that hair net; clearly I had no choice. 


Caution signs while exploring the Jose Cuervo Tequila Distillery in Tequila, Mexico


Haven’t visited Japan just yet, but seeing this article in my twitter feed — about Japan rethinking replacing words on signs with pictures — was what inspired me to write this post!

[inquire] What objects of affection are you fascinated by when you travel? Is there any thing you find yourself mindlessly photographing? Do you too notice signs more than usual when you’re away from home?

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