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.

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.