Information highway?

July 6, 2008

too amny signs


Until recently I used to work in the highways sector and street clutter was a subject that I just beginning to get interested in. People in different highways departments put signs up all over the place with little or no regard for where the signs were and what other signs might be around. In England we still have some very nice country villages but many of them were disfigured by huge signs a lot of which, in my opinion, are not really necessary.

Glad to see that the government in the UK are starting to get interested (see But what has this got to do with IA ?

I am seriously coming to the conclusion that any interaction between a human and a piece of designed information can benefit from an IA approach. But how can this be achieved when it comes to signs on the highway?

I suggested that a drive down stretches of highway blighted by too much signage by an auditor (for me preferably an IA) both as a passenger and as a driver might be a way of identifying the minimum required to ensure safety. It would be my guess that 80% of all signs could be either done away with or at least reduced in size. This is now an approach that the government is pushing.  Once a sign is erected the people nearby have to live with it every day and unnecessary signs cause visual pollution. Too many signs can be distracting to drivers rather than informative actually increasing the risk of an accident.

This is just one area outside of cyberspace where I feel IA could be used to improve things. I’m sure there are many more.

4 Responses to “Information highway?”

  1. Kevin Stone Says:

    This is an interesting topic that I have seen dealt with in a number of different ways by different designers. As well as the visual pollution that can be created by too much signage it is relates to Hicks Law ('s_law) and can in fact reduce peoples response times and possibly increase the likelihood of accidents.

    When Maraget Calvert and Jock Kinneir originally devised the road signage system that we see today in the UK, they treated each letter as a separate unit, insomuch that the size of road signs were directly proportional to the amount of information being displayed. This therefore served to confine road signs to there appropriate size.

    Admittedly, this does not control the excessent use of unneeded signs being added. In this respect I have always admired the New York Subway system signage by Massimo Vignelli (Vignelli Associates). In there design they adopted the ingeniously simple principle to “deliver the necessary information at the point of decision, never before, never after” (1). This system therefore reduces any visual clutter and also makes for a simpler user experience (along with the well design signage obviously).


  2. patcwalsh Says:

    Thanks for the excellent comment.
    With regard to NY subway signage I would feel that a solution would be somewhat simpler than for road signs as the environment is totally owned and controlled by the transport organisation. They can change not just the signage and where it goes but what the environment is like around the signage. This is not possible for road signs which have to exist in a somewhat chaotic environment.
    It is not the design of the signs (which on the whole is excellent) but how they interact with the environment while still providing good information to drivers. Traditionally highway authorities have positioned signs according to some arbitrary rule e.g. Stop signs must be 20 yards from the give way line on a junction and that is where the sign would go regardless of what effect it might have on other signage or the surrounding environment.
    The only way to solve this problem (in the short term) is to get somewhat out there looking at whats on our roads in a critical way and then take action accordingly.
    In the long term when satnavs have a 100% take up (can’t be too far off it now) it should be possible to have electronic signals that alert the driver to changes in speed limits, school crossings etc. and then our streets and cities will look so much better without all of the visual clutter caused by these signs.

  3. Kevin Stone Says:

    In response to what you mentioned, some areas have actually experimented with the complete removal of road signs (and traffic lights) and found it reduced the number of road traffic accidents. The basic idea being that users are then more considerate to one and other:

    In many ways it echoes anarchist philosophy that the removal of rules will encourage us to act in the best interest of the whole. Regardless of whether this level or road sign removal is achieved, it appears that some local districts are echoing your comments:

    Maybe more is yet to come, especially with your excellent point regarding sat navs!

  4. patcwalsh Says:

    Excellent point! Before I left highways they were experimenting with not just removing signs but road markings too. In one test they found that removing the centre line on a sharp bend actually made drivers more cautious and so they drove more slowly leading to fewer accidents.
    And some have gone further –

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