Road Signs and Icons

I've always been fascinated with road signs. And evidently so is Donald Knuth:

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at:

In his blog entry Interpretive Software

Steve Makofsky draws a similar parallel between software design and interpretive sign design. Eg, those signs you’ll sometimes see on nature trails…

“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 am obsessed with signs, so much I made an online sign making site, see a href=“http://www.customsigngenerator.com /a :wink:

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!

i need where it is found

the evolution of British road signs