November 7, 2005
I've always been fascinated with road signs. And evidently so is Donald Knuth:
During our summer vacation in 2003, my wife and I amused ourselves by taking leisurely drives in Ohio and photographing every diamond-shaped highway sign that we saw along the roadsides. (Well, not every sign; only the distinct ones.) For provenance, I also stood at the base of each sign and measured its GPS coordinates. This turned out to be even more fun than a scavenger hunt, so we filled in some gaps when we returned to California. And we intend to keep adding to this collection as we drive further, although we realize that we may have to venture to New England in order to see `FROST HEAVES'.
When you're a world famous computer scientist, I guess you're entitled to a slightly different definition of fun than most people. Knuth featured a "Dangerous Bend" sign in his series of books on the TeX typesetting system, to highlight areas of esoterica. Perhaps this was a precursor to his fascination with diamond road signs.
I think Knuth is on to something here. Road signs echo what we're trying to accomplish with icons and graphics in software: universal visual understanding. Road signs are a well understood lingua franca for travelers, whether they're in an airplane, automobile, or navigating the streets of New York City on foot. Signs are an integral part of the human experience in any modern culture. The manual of traffic signs documents the dizzying array of navigational signs that we take for granted every day here in the United States.
I recently purchased the book 1000 Signs, which illustrates the striking similarities -- and cultural differences -- between road signs all over the world:
Divided into chapters by type (animals, men, stop, danger, weapons, transport, children, toilets, work, "no!", etc.), the signs demonstrate how different cultures portray the icons with which we are all so familiar. The diverse selection of photographs is accompanied by texts describing the cultural and social significance of signs.
Shouldn't software graphic design draw more inspiration from the last century's worth of cumulative design on simple, effective road signs? The goal in both cases is the same: getting safely to your destination, whether you're navigating physical space or information space.
Posted by Jeff Atwood
"Shouldn't software graphic design draw more inspiration from the last century's worth of cumulative design on simple, effective road signs?"
I think it already does. Look at message boxes - either have a stop sign with an exclamation point, an i in an circle, or a ? in a circle (though the last two may not be completely language neutral).
As I look at FireFox, I have no toolbar button labels, yet bookmark, print, home, back, forward, refresh, etc, all have icons that you can associate with immediately and have no need for localization.
I'm not sure how much further you could go. Most signs only express one word or thought - for instance, curve, school crossing, rail-road crossing, etc... Around were I live, there are signs that say "Bridge may ice in cold weather." Trying to think of symbol for that reminds me of trying to create icons for things which you have no clue about representing visually because they are complex functions.
are signs that say "Bridge may ice in cold weather."
True, but those signs have specific shapes and colors along with the words, too. Consider the white-on-green road sign; you know what information it's going to contain before you even read it!
Not in Alabama they don't. They are black-on-yellow diamonds with no pictures! They look the exact same as "Large trucks entering roadway" and a few others we have with no pictures... The signs themselves look like every other street sign that does have pictures... It is a true "reading" fest sometimes!
I love signs too, and am fascinated by language-independent sign systems, but I feel the comparison with software icons breaks down rather quickly.
Icons are often used to represent the state of a dynamic system, physical signs are generally static.
Physical size counts for a lot. So does proximity to other signage. At this moment I count no fewer than 70 icons occupying a 1600x1200 area on my desktop and the apps running there. Naturally I don't see them all at once, I only focus on the ones appropriate to the task at hand. Its just not likely (i hope!) you'll ever see such information desity in the real world!
There is a lot to be learned by studying principles underlying signage systems, but the comparison only goes so far...
Its just not likely (i hope!) you'll ever see such information desity in the real world!
Consider this analysis of current web design trends:
Simplicity is on the rise:
* Simple layout
* 3D effects, used sparingly
* Soft, neutral background colours
* Strong colour, used sparingly
* Cute icons, used sparingly
* Plenty of whitespace
* Nice big text
That's awfully similar to how signage is displayed on the highway, isn't it?
That said, it does break down eventually, but we have a long, long way to go to get there!