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Signs of the times

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the consensus was that there were too many signs in our lives. But to stay safe, we need signs again.

A worker installed an informational sign near the beach at Houghton's Pond in Milton. Signs in the public realm must convince the audience to take everything seriously, but not overwhelm.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

If the coronavirus pandemic has changed virtually all aspects of everyday life, add to that one more: the way we navigate our physical surroundings on a daily basis, now guided by a plethora of signs, advisories, and directional instructions.

Stickers on the floor indicate the appropriate social distance between customers, choreographing where to stand, like marks for actors on a theater stage. Entering a building requires advanced understanding and constant vigilance once inside, limiting any thoughts of meandering. This new adornment of buildings and parks and public space is oddly analog, pointing the way with largely printed material — an old-school respite from the phone and computer screens that are so central to the rest of the day.


Directional line stickers and social distancing cues in Starbucks in the Back Bay.Anthony Flint

Yet there is plenty of sophisticated thinking that goes into signage and wayfinding, as it is known in the design world. Signs in the public realm are a unique form of instantaneous communication, attempting to accomplish much in a short time. They must convince the audience to take everything seriously, but not overwhelm. “If there’s too much and it’s in your face, you ignore it, and it all becomes part of the background,” said Matt Honan, fresh back from putting up 200 COVID-related signs at Clark University, in Worcester, for Honan Sign Co.

Reading as a prerequisite for moving through physical space is widely accepted, of course, whether queueing up for customs and immigration at the airport, inspecting parking meter hours of operation, or taking in nutrition information on an overhead menu. Some signage truths have become self-evident over time, like “no smoking,” “keep off the grass,” and “curb your dog.”

Before the pandemic, a consensus had begun to form that there were too many signs in our lives, creating visual clutter and leading to the tuning-out phenomenon that Honan described. A 2015 Supreme Court ruling, Reed v. Town of Gilbert, allowed cities and towns to regulate the size and appearance of signs, as long as they steered clear of regulating content. It was the end of a long arc beginning with 20th-century modernism, in which cityscapes were shorn of a cacophony of advertisements and handbills that had been slathered over building facades. But now here we are, and we need signs again.


A collage of signs and stickers.Matt Honan

In the public health emergency, design professionals are stepping up. “We don’t think about signs until we need them,” said David Hickey, vice president for advocacy at the International Sign Association, an industry group that makes evidence-based recommendations for best practices in wayfinding. “It’s a balance — we all want signs that are attractive and well-ordered, but at the same time they need to be visible, conspicuous, and legible, with proper contrast, to be effective.”

In the early days of the pandemic, “much of the signage we saw was alarmist, with scary messaging, bold fonts, and colors related to emergency situations,” said Javier Cortés, brand studio director in the Boston office of Gensler, a global architecture, design, and planning firm. “So how do you draw the line of making it serious without instilling fear?” He recommends making designs “approachable,” using friendly tones and illustrations to humanize the messages as much as possible.

Some behavior has already become second nature, like donning a mask before getting on a bus or going into a retail store. Other guidance is less readily embraced, as seen in the routinely flouted one-way circulation protocols in the grocery store. At the entry to each aisle, green means “shop this way” and red is “do not enter,” but it’s unknown how many shoppers actually spin the cart around once they find themselves going against the flow.


Architects and interior designers are generally not big fans of signs, believing that a well-crafted layout should speak for itself. In fact, it’s taken as an embarrassment if building occupants feel they need to put up a Post-it note indicating the path to the exit. Traditional architecture is especially good at enticing human interaction without any words at all.

It’s an unspoken understanding where the entrance is at the Boston Public Library’s McKim Building — up the stairs, between the two allegorical statues representing science and art, and through a trio of stone arch doors. The symmetry shows the way. Studies tracking eye movements have determined that such traditional design is inviting at a subconscious level. Order connotes safety, calming primitive instincts of caution and fear.

There are many other ways that humans subtly interact with the physical world that is now so assiduously labeled. But these times require the signs. In the end, it might not be a bad reminder to be more aware of where we are, where we’re going, and how our actions have an impact on others. All those directional stickers might ultimately be pointing toward a common sense of purpose.


Anthony Flint, a senior fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, writes about architecture and urban design. He can be reached at anthony.flint@lincolninst.edu.