Monthly Archives: January 2020

Klobuchar Trump Voter Editorial Cartoon by Craig H Collins

Editorial Cartoon by Craig H Collins

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Bad Signs

Your faithful correspondent has been a self-appointed arbiter of bad design ever since he read “The Design of Everyday Things” by Don Norman in the 1980s.  My chosen specialty  is poorly-composed signs.  The explicit purpose of signs is to direct, instruct and clarify; any sign that fails its basic mission should be put out of our misery.

I thought I’d share some examples from my Bad Sign Hall of Shame.  I normally don’t wish people ill, but the design-school dropouts who created these monstrosities should go visit a corn maze someday and never find their way out.

Yes, I am rather ruthless when it comes to bad signs.  Maybe I was born under one.

Which Way to the Ice Machine?

At left (click to enlarge) is a sign in the 5th-floor hallway — at least they got that right — of the Richmond Marriott in Innsbrook, Virginia.  Spare elegance was the byword in the design of their signage, floated behind glass and with generous margins.  Unfortunately, the sign gives no clue whether the ice machine is to the right or the left.

My solution to the problem is shown at right.  First, take note of Collins Design Principle #1 — directional arrows that point to the right should be in the right margin and those that point to the left should be in the left margin.  Arrows should never point back to their own labels.

Moving the ice label to the top and giving it an arrow of its own eliminates all ambiguity and increases readability.  I also added an ice-crystal symbol for non-English speakers.  Marriott Hotels, please contact me.  My rates are reasonable.

And by the way, your ice machine was broken.

Center-Up-Down, Left-Up-Down, Right-Up-Down

The title of this section refers to how the designer of this Ohio highway sign (left) expected drivers to parse it.  There is no earthly written language that calls for such a feat.  My inner voice says, as I read this sign, “West 90 East, Keep Left 2 Right Turn.”  Huh?  This was such a dog’s breakfast of numbers, words and symbols that I couldn’t help but snap a photo of it, so I could take a better look at the sign when I got home and figure out how to fix it.

The designer (if you can call him that) apparently decided that placing the elements in an unnatural order wasn’t enough to confuse drivers, so he threw out proximity rules as well. Those rules say, among other things, that elements associated with each other should be grouped together and unrelated elements should be set apart.  But here, the destination labels (WEST, EAST) are far removed from their respective turn instructions; and, based on its position, it appears that the right turn arrow refers to Route 2 alone.

That’s not all.  The designer indiscriminately mixed written instructions (KEEP LEFT) with symbolic ones (the right arrow).  People process text differently, and more slowly, than we do symbols.  Each type of element has a specific use and the two are not interchangeable. 

So here’s my solution (right).  I give the sign a header comprised of the two route shields, with a horizontal rule between the header and the instruction columns.  I use a wide gap to define the columns.  I provide both symbolic and written instructions for each direction.  The result is clean, balanced and easy to parse.

The average graphic designer salary in Columbus, Ohio, is only $47,500 a year.  You would think that the Ohio DOT could afford to find a better one at that price.

When is the Bridge Open?

Lastly, here is a sign that was posted near the north entrance of the Woods Memorial Bridge, a swing bridge connecting Beaufort and Lady’s Island, South Carolina.  Besides its obvious clutter and complexity, I had a number of issues with this sign.  Like, who is it for?  Though the sign was installed near the highway, it was really more relevant to boaters, as open means open to watercraft.

In any case, this sign is incapable of being read and comprehended by passing motorists, and it is hardly more intelligible when standing next to it.  For example, does the heading “MONDAY THROUGH FRIDAY EXCEPT HOLIDAYS” apply only to the top section, or to the top two sections, or to the entire sign?  And what do we do with that triple-negative in the upper section, where an except precedes a not which precedes another except?

After doing some research, I discovered that the bridge schedule has been changed multiple times in the past decade, in response to traffic backups in the Beaufort historic district.  So, the sign in the photo may have already been replaced.  In light of the fluid (haha) situation, I offer this: list the times when the bridge always opens on signal, otherwise tell boaters where to find the current schedule.

That’s it for the first and probably last edition of Bad Signs, a small bit of self-indulgence. Sometimes, when I see something I think a 7-year-old could do better, I can’t resist seeing whether a 67-year-old can do it better too.

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•  My new artistic credo is, go bold or go home.  Like Andy Warhol, minus the decadence. I’m getting too old to play things safe and, frankly, safe isn’t all that interesting.

•  That said, I do have self-imposed limits on what I write about here.  I rarely if ever share family stories, because (a) they are not my own to share, not matter how entertaining they may be, and (b) I am very conscious about other people’s internet privacy, such that it is.  Also, while I could mine my own childhood for any number of polemics, some dead dogs should remain in the ground to decompose.  Better safe than smelly.

• Here’s some artistic boldness.  It’s titled Chicken Story.  Play it full-screen for max bold.

•  Something’s very wrong.  I have been cutting out carbs and exercising for the last week — shouldn’t I have dropped 10 pounds and 30 cholesterol points by now?

•  On a related note, Fiber One has got to be the worst breakfast cereal in the solar system.  It looks like cat litter and tastes like… well, used cat litter.  It should be sold in feed stores.  I wanted to mix the rest of the box into our birdseed but my wife, wisely, said no.

•  We still have a landline because cell service is unreliable where we live.  And we are still training ourselves not to pick up the phone when we get calls from an unknown number, even if it appears to be from our local area code.  Our friends may be annoyed when we let their calls go to the answering machine, but I trust most will understand that our ratio of spam to legitimate calls is at least 7-to-1.  (Nationwide, the ratio is about 1-to-1.)

•  Some tech company needs to invent a house-wide noise-cancelling system that activates whenever Canon in D is played by anyone on any device within earshot of me.

•  The difference between celebrities and nobodies is that lots of people are willing to pay (or stay up late) to see/hear celebrities tell stories.  Conversely, no one wants to listen to your story about seeing Miley Cyrus at an interstate rest stop.  Well, maybe some do.

•  Seeded raisins must be really popular or else I am really unlucky.  Every time I look for seeded raisins in the grocery store, only the seedless ones are left.

•  I have finally concluded that the TV show The Walking Dead isn’t very realistic.  I mean, we never see the zombies eat anything (except for the rare human, and they are eaten rare) so what exactly fuels zombie muscles?  If we are to take that show seriously, shouldn’t the walkers at least be shown drinking Red Bull or gumming Velveeta?

•  Speaking of Walkers: If every human who ever walked the earth (over 100 billion of us!)  were buried in one place, each in their own 6-foot x 12-foot plot, the cemetery would be the size of Texas.  Abel’s grave would be in the northwest corner of the panhandle, which is the most Republican district in the United States.  For what it’s worth.

•  1796 was the year that the city of Cleveland (originally spelled Cleaveland) was founded.  This would prompt young Ohio farmboys to launch what would become an autumn ritual: meeting behind the barn to smoke cornsilk and make sly biblical references to Cleaveland, without ever mentioning or remembering which party is supposed to cleave unto whom.  The descendants of those farmboys carry on today, as Cleveland Browns fans.

•  Now-You-Know Department:  This figure-8-shaped item (at right), which most people would just call a plug, is actually a C7 connector.  The prongs on the appliance comprise the C8 connector.  These are most commonly found on audio/video devices.  Sadly, now that you have eaten of the Tree of Electrical Knowledge, you must be banished from the Garden.  Depart then, and cover your connectors in shame.

•  Every violent tragedy now, we are all asking, “Is it a hate crime?  Is it terrorism?” as if the name we assign to it will somehow put it in a compartment removed from normal life.  Sad news: this is normal life.

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