When was the last time you encountered a public sign that made you not just stop, but stop and think? We all know our reserved parking, our no trespassing, our this property is protected by video surveillance. But what about a sign for handicap parking that actually works – actually keeps spot-stealers at bay? What about public restroom signs that don’t alienate the trans community? And since the old ones seem, tragically, to be failing us left and right, what about speed limit signs that take a more creative approach to slowing drivers down in pedestrian areas?
The good folks over at Brooklyn-based SmartSign, a generous sponsor of ioby’s upcoming benefit (Nov. 13 – mark your calendars), think our signs can do better. For the last decade, they’ve been hard at work – while continuing to pump out big red stop signs and all the other usual suspects – to shake up the rote conversation between we Americans and our boring signs, making it just that little bit more enlightened, more playful, more current.
“I’m a little bit fanatical about it,” says SmartSign Content Director Conrad Lumm, who’s been known to dabble in a little signage-oriented guerilla tactical urbanism here and there. He and some colleagues recently took to the streets of Brooklyn with a batch of provocative handicap parking signs (‘Taking my spot? Take my disability’), tacking them up wherever they could find handicap spots. Everywhere the crew went, people thanked them. “The more we look the more we see,” says Lumm. “There are a lot of issues that need messaging, that need signage.”
Some of those issues are ones you’d expect. Take speed limits. As Lumm points out, “There’s a lot of statistical evidence that just lowering the speed limit by five miles per hour saves just an absolutely stunning number of lives in places as perilous as NYC.” SmartSign recently donated a bunch of “20 IS PLENTY” signs to activist group Right of Way, which installed them in Park Slope, Brooklyn, as a form of citizen protest.
But some of the issues that need signage are more obscure than you could imagine. In some rural parts of the country, for example, unofficially designated “pet dumping sites” are an emerging phenomenon, posing a huge threat to animal welfare. “We started hearing from police departments that this is actually a thing,” says Lumm, “so we started developing signage offering people alternatives to abandoning unwanted pets in isolated areas.”
SmartSign’s forward-thinking attitude has proved great for business, too. More and more communities across the US are tailoring their signage to their own very specific needs, and they’re turning to Smart Sign for production. “We kind of got ahead of that, by setting up a proprietary system that allows people to print pretty much whatever they want to,” says Lumm. “Across the industry, there’s just been an explosion in the different varieties of signs that people want.”
The company was the first, for example, to manufacture an all-gender public restroom sign that depicted not the person who should use it (Pants? Skirt? Neither? Both?), but rather what was on the other side of the door: a toilet. “It’s kind of a big step for a lot of organizations,” says Lumm. “For a long time, people in the trans community have said that everyday public restroom use can be an utterly horrifying experience where they’re called out or policed or people yell at them for using the quote unquote wrong bathroom.” A huge number of the new all-gender signs have sold, and this year SmartSign donated about $10,000 worth of the all-gender signs to colleges across the country. They wanted to send graduating seniors into the work force with a more 2014 take on public restroom signage.
It’s all pretty cool, groundbreaking stuff. Lucky for us, Lumm and his colleagues think we’re doing good work, too. They graciously plan to continue to support ioby project leaders by providing free custom signage, enabling funds raised to stretch that much further. Lumm is all in for the Nov 13 ioby benefit – which he says is always a blast – so make a list of your tactical urbanism questions and get ready to nerd out over delicious KBBK-donated kombucha cocktails. And don’t forget to look for the sign he had made up for the benefit. Hint: bring your dancing shoes.
“I think the work ioby does is amazing and necessary,” Lumm says, “I like knowing that there are people who are thinking about how to make cities more liveable, more user friendly places, and that they’re in my neighborhood, I love that.”
So. Now that you know the sign’s the limit: If you could design a sign to better your neighborhood, what would it say? Where are the gaps in communication on your street? What’s your message?