What is the name given to the study of public signage?
August 26, 2022 9:26 AM   Subscribe

I'm totally fascinated how, across the world, some road networks, streetscapes and public buildings have very different levels of signage...

For example, in France the road signage tends to excellent. Even minor roads are sign-posted with the direction of the next town and the distance. Other countries, even affluent ones, don't seem to do public signage very well at all.

On a street-level, Japan puts detailed neighbourhood maps on street corners. And something similar can be seen in some parts of central London.

On a more micro-level, some buildings, like airports and hospitals, can be internally very badly signposted.

While I've heard of "people flow" experts for buildings. However, I've never heard of a "sign consultant". Does this area of expertise exist at all?
posted by jacobean to Science & Nature (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Semiotics is the term, I believe.
posted by SPrintF at 9:31 AM on August 26, 2022

Wayfinding deals specifically with navigation. It's definitely an area of study.
posted by cardboard at 9:40 AM on August 26, 2022 [8 favorites]

I would categorize this as wayfinding; it’s at the intersection of several different disciplines (geography, urban planning, sociology, civil engineering… to name a few).

Semiotics is a structural model of linguistic signs; applicable to what you’re asking, certainly, but if you start there you might not find exactly what you expect.
posted by obliquicity at 9:42 AM on August 26, 2022 [1 favorite]

Semiotics is technically correct, but the field is kind of a stuffy abstract part of philosophy, and it's not really what you want I don't think. Wikipedia's page on Urban Semiotics is a little better, but even in the lede you can see the high-falutin' conceptual talk, broader scope and sort of lack of application:
"Most urban semiotic theory is based on social semiotics, which considers social connotations, including meanings related to ideology and power structures, in addition to denotative meanings of signs. As such, urban semiotics focuses on material objects of the built environment, such as streets, squares, parks, and buildings, but also unbuilt cultural products such as building codes, planning documents, unbuilt designs, real estate advertising, and popular discourse about the city,[2] such as architectural criticism and real estate blogs. "

Maybe that is what you want. Probably you can find books on Urban Design or Transportation Planning that have chapters on signage and semiotics.

I like this stuff too, so if you find anything good please share!
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:00 AM on August 26, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you’re in the UK you might like to join the Sign Design Society. They do interesting talks and events.
posted by corvine at 10:28 AM on August 26, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Wayfinding! A friend used to work for the firm that produced The Wayfinding Handbook. (I’ve never read it, but as a fan of A Pattern Language and the idea of placemaking, it’s on my list.)
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 10:30 AM on August 26, 2022 [4 favorites]

Technical Communication dabbles in signage.
posted by mecran01 at 10:31 AM on August 26, 2022 [1 favorite]

Wayfinding is what it's called in buildings to th epoint of having Experiential Design firms who specialize in designing wayfinding signage.
posted by edbles at 12:23 PM on August 26, 2022

Stepping back in to share a chuckling memory of giving letter grades to signage on US highways while road-tripping with a dear friend. A+ signage included distance to next rest stop, directions and distances to amenities at exits, specific, separate color ways for cultural attractions/parks. Q- signage included signs directing one to amenities that led to… getting lost and no actual amenities, and exit signage for extreme turns with no warning, placed physically *after* the exit. Ah. Happy times!
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 12:27 PM on August 26, 2022 [1 favorite]

I work in local government and we call it wayfinding.
posted by notjustthefish at 7:08 PM on August 26, 2022 [1 favorite]

In the U.S. there is a giant manual called the Manual on Uniform Traffic Devices (MUTCD). It standardizes all traffic signs, signals, etc and is adopted by every state in one way or another. It applies not only to federal highways and interstates, but state roads, county roads, city roads, and even private roads if they are open to the public. AND it applies to pedestrian walkways, bikeways, as well as roads.

In short, it sets the standard for almost all the official signs you will see outside in public places in the U.S.

You can download or view the entire MUTCD here.

Interestingly it doesn't seem to give any answer to your question, "What is the name given to the study of public signage?" It just mentions different types of people that will use the guide, like federal highway officials, state highway officials, traffic engineers, etc etc.

They also have a pretty large team in charge of various facets of the MUTCD. You could contact them & ask them what they call themselves, but I think it would be very boring things like highway engineers, civil engineers, etc.
posted by flug at 11:44 PM on August 26, 2022 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks you for all the excellent responses!

I never knew there is a Sign Design Society which publishes books on the topic. Or, that there is a giant manual on the standardisation of US signage.

The Wayfinding Handbook looks very interesting and as does the whole concept of "placemaking".

Many thanks again!
posted by jacobean at 6:33 AM on August 29, 2022

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