Two Dumb Signs of Downtown Saint Paul and Three Rules of Signage Design

“Obey traffic laws.”

Signs are a fascination of mine. For one thing, signs are all around us. Pretty much everything is a sign: the tiniest graffito, the chalk mark on the curb, the entire skyscraper… they are all signs in some way.

Deliberate urban signage, though, is a category unto itself: the official sign, deemed legitimate by conforming to city, state, and Federal signage codes for font readability, reflectivity, design, and placement. Through these signs, “the city” broadly speaking attempts to tell you what to do. They should be designed and placed with care, and dissecting precisely what they say is a hobby of mine.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand a few basic rules of signage. For example, there’s a limit to total signage, where an accumulation of signs presses asymptotically against a theoretical maximum signage threshold. That conceptual endpoint looks a lot like Times Square, signs upon signs upon signs that begin to lose all individual meaning in exchange for arbitrary semiotic atmosphere in which one swims or (more likely) drowns.

The “no left turn” sign in Times Square is like a sensible comment on a Strib article about bike lanes: entirely lost in the noise.

Even in the real world, far from a signage cataclysm, at certain point, signs cannibalize themselves. Because attention is a fixed quantity, signs are a zero sum game. Looking at one sign means you are not looking at another sign, and so on.

Even in places like the Washington Avenue transit mall, or maybe just a complicated stretch of on-street parking, people tune out, senses dull, attention becomes numb to the new. The lesson being: there’s only so much you can tell someone, so you had better choose wisely.

Everyone is ignoring the signs, and everything is fine.

This brings me to my point. In all my time hanging out in downtown Saint Paul, there have been two signs that were really truly dumb. Let me tell you about them.

Dumb Sign #1

The first sign illustrates a second basic rule: if you have to say something obvious, you’re doing it wrong. Chances are that you’ve designed the situation badly and need to re-think what you are doing.

(Note: the word design is the same as the term de-sign.)

So here it is, the dumbest sign in modern downtown Saint Paul history. It sat on the sidewalk outside Wabasha and Exchange Streets for an entire summer.

Two views of the sign.

My only guess is that someone at some point drove onto the sidewalk. Perhaps this happened twice! (Note: people drive into Saint Paul buildings on a regular basis.)

Instead of saying: “what a dangerous lunatic!” someone thought, “we need a sign telling people not to do that.”

(Given the location next to the Fitzgerald Theater, I’m guessing this person was Garrison Keillor, who called up someone at the city with a sonorously-voiced ultimatum. But this is pure speculation…)

Anyway, I can’t even. It should be obvious that you don’t drive on the sidewalk. The kind of person that drives onto a sidewalk is the same person who drives straight over a sign that says “don’t drive on the sidewalk” before driving on the sidewalk.

And yet, for some reason, a sign saying “Do not drive on the sidewalk” was placed on the sidewalk for the better part of a year.

The consequences of this include:

  • The sidewalk looked terrible.
  • The sidewalk became less walkable with a giant sign blocking half of its width.
  • Everyone who looked at it was made dumber by doing so.
  • The sign validated driver inattention.
  • And finally, it was a waste of a perfectly good orange diamond-shaped piece of metal that presumably could have been put to use elsewhere.

At least that sign has disappeared and is no longer found anywhere near downtown Saint Paul.

Dumb Sign #2

The second dumb sign is different because it’s still there in Lowertown, at the corner of 4th and Broadway.

Go there yourself. Walk around and witness the series of “no pedestrian” signs that mark the intersection. These signs illustrate well my third rule of signage: When everyone ignores a sign, it should not exist.

90% of the people simply walk here anyway. In fact, hardly anyone pays much attention to the stoplight either.

Overhead view of corner. Blue line denotes where everyone walks.

And most everyone ignores these signs. 4th and Broadway is a very walkable, calm intersection in a very walkable, calm area of downtown Saint Paul. Especially during farmer’s market season, but really all the time, people walk from downtown over to the big parking lots on the far side of the Black Dog Café building.

These signs continually demand that people not walk across the street in the one place where it would be totally obvious to do so. And yet nearly everyone ignores these signs, and they are right to do so. Car traffic is nearly always slow-moving and sparse, and trains are nearly nonexistent. Nobody is going to cross the street and walk out of their way when there is no reason to continue forward.

On one level, I understand the reasons for the signs. Much like with the Washington Avenue Transit Mall signage on the U of MN campus, these are liability signs. And much like those signs, they are ignored by nearly all.

Still, it’s a bad sign when people ignore the clearly posted rules. But maybe when everyone is behaving improperly, it’s not the people who need to change. It’s the design.

Another discouraging sign. The 4th and Broadway intersection is located in the background.


So in sum, the de-sign rules:

1. Signs are a zero-sum game for attention

2. Signs should not state things that should be obvious

3. If everyone ignores it, you’re doing it wrong

Someday I’d like to see some signage sense in downtown Saint Paul, Washington Avenue, and elsewhere. Until then, please pay no attention to dumb signs. Stay on your toes, and use your common sense to get around city streets.

14 thoughts on “Two Dumb Signs of Downtown Saint Paul and Three Rules of Signage Design

  1. Jeff

    The sign telling Macalester students not to cross Grand where Grand bisects the busiest parts of campus should be a candidate for Dumb Sign #3.

  2. Bob Roscoe

    As to the signs issue: I served on the Minneapolis HPC for 21 years. At permit review hearings, we reviewed approximately 100 permit applications each year. Of that number, usually 90 applications were for buildings and land use, and we approved 90 of them. Perhaps ten were signs in historic districts or on historic buildings, and we approved 4 or 5 of them – half or less.

    Signs were somehow more problematic. Why? Probably our judgement expertise paid considerable attention to buildings, and we developed intense expertise to buildings, but signs seemed to us were subconsciously a very secondary concern. But it may be due to the makers of signs not understanding more that their intended messages but little concern as to their overall visual impact on the built environment. Maybe if their graphics were visually conforming, they were not standing out enough to do their sign makers’ purpose.

  3. Evik James

    I am pretty sure most dumb signs are the result of a politician having a family member who owns a sign company. I really see no other reasonable explanation for such stupidity. Danger – excessive signage ahead!

  4. Jennifer

    Maybe “No Vehicles on Sidewalk” was for those people driving the construction machines (Bobcats and such)? Or maybe it was a social experiment! Or maybe people are just dumb. Thanks for the common sense article that those who need will not ever see. 🙂

  5. Tom Quinn

    Another pointless St. Paul street sign is at the intersection of Chatsworth and Portland. At Chatsworth there is a stop sign at the Portland intersection even though Portland becomes a one-way street going both east and west at this intersection. There is no cross-traffic from Portland, no school, and simply no reason to have this stop sign.

  6. Andrew

    Nice article! I dread the day when we get to signpocalypse like on the East Coast where no parking poles are littered with smaller modifier signs that take a minute to even read and decipher. Beg button poles placed in the crosswalk space are my personal pet peeve.

  7. David Greene

    My favorite dumb sign is in Minnetonka, northbound Plymouth Road approaching 394. First sign says, “394 Right Lane,” second sign, not more than 20 feet north, says, “Right Lane Ends.” And it does!

  8. Jack

    This story reminded me of my first trip to Boston. I took a cab from the airport to my friend’s house and at one point, we got stuck in city traffic. The cab driver was not having it: he abruptly pulled up over the curb, onto the sidewalk, drove half a block past the snag (whatever it was) then pulled back onto the street and went on his way. I was floored. I immediately fell in love with the East Coast.

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