I would not be bowdlerising the work of Mr Collins (from his dictionary period, rather than his time in CI5) much to say that semiotics is the study of signs. For those unable or unwilling to commit fully to the subject, demisemiotics would require only half the effort. For those with real commitment issues, there is always hemidemisemiotics – but this barely covers a corner of the desk of signs.
On my way to the Common, I passed a sign upon which appeared the words “New road layout ahead”. “Really?”, thought I. I have been here for nearly two years and there have been no changes in nearby road layout in all that time, which led me to ponder how long such a sign could validly be displayed. The castle which gave its name to the great city on the Tyne was originally new in the 13th century. The forest which lies a mere stone’s throw from my abode (provided one has access to modern artillery – or a truly prodigious throwing arm) has been “new” for close to a millennium. Practically, for regular users of The Avenue the sign would be needed for at most a month (just in case they were on holiday or away on business). I have to assume that the provider of the sign is targetting the more occasional user: one who only travels that way only every couple of years (at most) but who still retains a detailed knowledge of the road layout which, without a clear warning, they may still act upon regardless of the local conditions which now pertain. Or perhaps the sign has been “listed”?
In fact, the number of signs which now line our highways and boulevards seems a constantly growing blight on our landscape. Whilst these may delight the semiotician on a field trip, for the road user the tree of safety-critical information is being lost in a forest of the irrelevant. I am also not a fan of painting critical information onto the road surface itself – normally reserved for key information on selecting the correct lane for your destination. This must have been a great method in the days when the number of vehicles on our roads was counted in the dozens, but today the density of traffic means that at the times when this information is most needed it is totally concealed beneath the all-too-opaque bodies of other vehicles. Whilst this issue could be ameliorated by the development of transparent cars and lorries, I feel this would create problems of its own (just think of the horrific sights one might see while hunting for the correct lane).
Despite the sheer number of signs cluttering the environment (it’s all around us, you know), the system has been cunningly designed to render lost any road user foolish enough to rely on them for navigation. When the route ahead is unequivocal it will be clearly signed, but as soon as there is any doubt all clues as to one’s future course are ruthlessly eliminated. My worst recent experience was at Southampton General Hospital, where I was astride my velocipede and seeking the Blood Donor Centre. Entering the site by the main entrance, I eventually took every possible route through the complex one-way system which fills the site (like a very inefficient attempt to navigate a maze) but there was no sign of the donor centre. I eventually came to realise that the one-way system divides the SGH site into two topologically separate systems – and there is no way to move a wheeled-contrivance from one to the other. I had to cheat and carry my bicycle in an “illegal” manoeuvre to create a wormhole between the two parallel dimensions which make up the hospital. Even then, it was almost impossible to find the donor centre – it is only signposted long after you can actually see it. The building does have a very large sign on its side which proudly bears the word “Southampton” in a truly enormous font – presumably to aid those who were taken to the hospital drugged and wearing a blindfold (perhaps as part of some sort of stag-do jape) and have no idea in which city they stand. In a tiny font, the same sign is (just about) willing to admit that this is the Blood Donor Centre – which can be easily read from as far away as six feet (further if the visitor has thought to bring their telescope). Upon leaving, I discovered that the centre is only a few feet from the main entrance – but totally inaccessible to those burdened by wheels. Apparently, the situation is so bad that even the senior management have noticed – perhaps having spent the first few months of their appointment trying to find their office – and are planning to improve the signage. Next time I visit I shall carry a large ball of yarn (or a hefty bag of breadcrumbs) – just in case!