· About 3 minutes read

The inexplicable schilderwald

Having recently moved to London, my life has become overburdened by a virtually unending number of street signs. They are everywhere, warning me of this, that, and the other thing, alerting me to things that I really don't care about, and more often than not supplying negative value to me as a person trying to navigate the streets.

Not only are the signs mostly redundant, they're also not very clear. The sign where there is a grey circle with a cross over it suggesting that a no-stopping zone is ending, if you know what the red circle with a cross over it means, often has the text "Zone ENDS" below it, as if anybody who didn't know what the symbol meant were likely to know what the word "zone" means in this context.

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The other sign that has really gotten my goat recently is "parking suspension". With a moment or two of thought, the grammatical ambiguity of the phrase is resolved, but every time I see the sign my mind starts wondering what it means nontheless. Since these signs are typically huge, why not write "Temporarily no parking" on them instead - or even better, just use a temporary sign with a red circle with a stroke through it and assume that people who are driving have the knowledge required to do so?

In general, there appears to be a very high amount of redundancy, alarmism and arbitrariness to the entire placement of road signs. In most countries it isn't quite as bad as here, but it seems to be a fairly universal thing in the "west" at the moment.

A more convivial approach to signage would be to present information only when it is likely to provide information. Here I'm using the term  "information" in two senses - first in the "thing which is intended to inform you" sense that signs represent, the semiotically loaded metal objects that comprise the schilderwald; and second, the information-theoretical sense of "having surprisal". In information theory, if transmitted data is not "surprising", it has low information value.

So, for instance, most yield signs are not surprising. Nor are most speed limit signs. Some signs are slightly surprising, but not really surprising enough to warrant there being a sign. In those cases, some more subtle hinting can be done. A great example of subtle hinting in traffic is the broken versus unbroken central dividers lines used in some countries to suggest to drivers whether overtaking is a smart thing to do or not.

I think almost everybody would feel a lot better in the madness of the cities and the drudgery of traffic if the visual clutter were replaced. Replacing most of it with trees would actually help quite a bit.