08 November 2006
Peter Bilak
Peter Bilak

It is common to trace the roots of the modern traffic signs back to the cave paintings at Lascaux, the Roman compulsory measurement of routes, or the Chinese road workers from the Chow dynasty. My fascination, however, is firmly rooted in the twentieth century and the traffic sign as urban expression.

The design of traffic signs employs two main rules: reduction and consistency. Consistency gives a group of independent signs the appearance of a coherent system. In this sense, a road sign system is similar to typography: communicating with prefabricated elements. Generally, figurative representations are reduced to two dimensions and free of superficial information.

Contemporary traffic signs use isometry instead of linear perspective. The essential rule in isometry is that parallel lines do not converge (fig.1) in order to avoid false distortions and to preserve the true characteristics of an object. In his book The Gutenberg Galaxy Marshall McLuhan also contrasts two-dimensional with three-dimensional drawing. He argues that primitive drawing is two-dimensional, whereas the drawing and painting of literate man tends toward perspective .

We live in a hybrid era. The images collected here show that there are few rules applied to the drawing of traffic signs. Today s versions range from parallel to perspective projections, and most points in between. Parallel lines converge whenever they need to. (figs.2-3)

Visual consistency-uniformity
Signs intended to provide the same information are often substantially different - visually speaking - across countries. Variations are found not only abroad, but also regularly within one country. This huge variety of signs is due to their cultural specificity.

There have always been attempts to bring uniformity to the sign system. One of the first dates back to 1929 - the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices , published by the American National Conference on Street and Highway Safety and revised over the years. Since its application, revisions have been published at least twice a decade. Each new government tends to initiate a redesigning of the existing traffic signs in order to find a better, more universal solution.

Reading is a culturally- and historically-bound activity. A traffic sign is context-based, and can only be considered in relationship to its environment. For this reason, it is not necessary to have the same road signs in Spain as in Sweden. The pictograms shown here document the failure of universalisation. Many of the designs contrived to become the universal model, but there is no need for one; all these road signs pictured function perfectly in their specific environment. When I asked people from the particular neighbourhoods about their signification, they had no problems in interpreting them.

It is interesting to compare the traffic pictograms with the iconography for the Olympic games. The Olympic system has to be both comprehensible to an international audience, whilst prestigiously specific to the host country. During the 1970s hype of design consistency, the Munich Olympic iconography designed by Otl Aicher was also applied to Frankfurt airport. The sign systems later found application in the wider public sphere (post-office, public directions, schools, shops, markets, etc.). Today, attempts of universalisation have dissolved, and Olympic pictograms are designed as ephemera, merely expressing the spirit of the era. The sign systems for the Barcelona or Lillehammer Olympic games are examples of adapting the visual language and localising universal symbols.

Although the point of this piece is not to discuss road signs from a semiotic point of view, it is important to understand that traffic pictograms are icons. In semiotic terms, an icon is a sign whose form is analogous to the object it represents. Traffic pictograms are bound to empirical reality, their form is grounded by physical resemblance as well as cultural conventions. A pedestrian in Macao and one in Maastricht may look very similar but their ideas of a symbol for a pedestrian may be dramatically different. This explains why so many different versions of the same road sign exist.

I believe traffic signs tell a lot about different cultures. They are a faithful portrait of how people imagine themselves. I thought a comparison of one simplification of the human form with another might provide some interesting insights; theoretically, the pictograms should match national stereotypes. These stereotypes function by connecting the culturally-bound expectations with the preconceived, simplified impression of the characteristics of a person, figure, drawing.

I like stereotypes because they are usually based on truth. The Dutch might disagree - since I ve lived in the Netherlands, I haven t seen many around here with wooden shoes or living in windmills, yet the Dutch would also be the first ones to say that the Germans are arrogant, the Belgians are dumb, and the French drink too much wine.

Stereotypes can be compared with existing traffic signs. Life in southern Europe is often described as being much slower then in the north of Europe. Compare the pictogram of a street-crossing sign from Portugal (fig.7) to its Dutch equivalent (fig.8). The design of both signs is identical, but the Dutch children have a definitely different pace of life.

It is the European convention to depict a small girl in front and her older friend behind, holding her hand. For some reason, all the European children go from right to left, except one: in Prague (fig.9) I found children going from left to right. What is the reason for their action? There are two possible explanations: they want go against the mainstream, or they are just confused. The second idea seems more convincing, since they are much younger then their contemporaries from the West.
The Slovakian children also break the rule, but not so explicitly as the Czechs. While the boy runs to the left, the girl stops and thinks where to go. (fig.10). I also found a variation of the same sign with the boy slightly inflated (fig.11). Slovak pride, perhaps.

Case study 1: Footpaths
Across Europe, the footpath sign usually pictures an adult male with a small girl, possibly his daughter. Again I found two near-identical silhouettes - one from the Netherlands, and one from Austria. The Dutch are renowned for their tolerance and openness, and indeed their pictogram faces us directly (fig.12). The Austrian sign, however, turns its back and walks away (fig.13). The same pictogram in France is more stylised, so it is not possible to say which way the man and the girl are walking (fig.14). Also, the man lost his hat on the way, and the girl has had a haircut. You may wonder where the rest of the family is. I found them in Germany. (fig.15): mother and son were walking around Kassel. I felt sorry for the split family. The Dutch tried to avoid the problem in their latest design: they created a unisex figure (fig.16) - one of the few pictograms I found without a specific gender.

Case study 2: Roadworks
In the roadwork pictograms I considered three aspects: the amount of work done, style of working, and general attitude. The first notable point was that the European workers face the opposite direction to footpath-users, though I have no idea why. The reduction to two dimensions is compensated for by more detailed outlines in Austria and Germany (fig.18). The Austrian worker is particularly distinct, with attributes of the true worker: rolled-up sleeves and boots. He is also one of the few that actually seems to enjoy digging the hole - even singing whilst on the job. We all know that the Germans and Austrians are hard working, a fact confirmed by the amount of soil the German man has dug (fig.18) compared with the Slovak (fig.19). Also, The Dutch digger also didn t manage to do so much, but then he is significantly smaller (fig.20). The modern workers have not done anything yet: the Dutchman hasn t even started (fig.21), and the Frenchman is similarly relaxed (fig.22). Perhaps it also has to do with the size of their brains - heads are apparently much bigger nowadays - maybe they just spend more time thinking before beginning manual work. Once again, the Slovak sign system demands special consideration: they are strictly hand-made, all valuable originals, varying from mopping men (fig.23) to lifting ones (fig.24). I also found a pedestrian disguised as a worker. (fig.25) Finally, the one from Lebanon is probably a war veteran, and manages to work with only one hand (fig.26).

Who s responsible?
Road signs should carry visual information explicitly, to which people should react as the designers intended. Because there is an immense difference between the visual literacy of people living in Paris compared to people from a small village in Eastern Slovakia, though, designing the pictograms effectively requires a great knowledge of culture, traditions, history, semiotics, and interpretation theory. Road signs seems to be an extremely complex matter, and I was interested to know who designs them and what their qualifications are.

I rang the Ministry of Transportation in Slovakia to ask who designed the traffic signs. They did not know and recommended that I call the Ministry of Internal Affairs. I called the Ministry of Internal Affairs, who said to call the Police. I called the Police, who referred me to the Ministry of Transportation. A bit Kafkaesque.

I tried a different strategy - sending letters. I sent a letter to the Ministry of Transportation, and to the Police. A few weeks later I received a letter from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Department of Transport Police, explaining how it works. The letter said the following:

The above-mentioned problems are solved in the Slovak Republic on two levels. The basic element is the judicial regulation (MV SR No. 90/1997 Z.z.) which in its supplements contains renderings (shape and symbols) and a signification of traffic signs, traffic devices, and special devices. It also establishes a basic elements of its usage. Design of the shapes, colours, and symbols of traffic signs was based on the recommendations of EU/UN. This institution was informed in a written document about the new judicial regulation as well as of the application of some new traffic signs.

Essentially, they were trying to say that the designing of the traffic signs is controlled centrally by the European Union and some fine European designer creates different signs for different regions, though this is hard to believe when you see the results.

It was not difficult to find out who manufactured the traffic signs. I rang them and asked where they get the designs from. The man on the phone said that he designs them himself. His name is Mr Ligac. He has been working in this company for fifteen years without ever having seen any design models or guidelines. When I asked how he approaches the design of a new sign, he answered that he has a book, Olympic games 72, and that he finds a lot of good drawings there. I m only trying to make them more human , he added. It was not difficult to find the book he was talking about. When we compare the pictograms from the street with the pictograms from the Olympics in Munich, it is apparent that Mr Ligac is doing a good job of humanising them.

In 2002 Europe will adopt the single-currency Euro. The banknotes valid in eleven countries will feature unidentifiable European monuments. They are a blend of historical elements; on the Euro 100 there is a typical European bridge that does not exist, on the Euro 20 a generic gothic window, and on the Euro 10 a typical Roman portal.

The research presented here is a reaction to the tendencies of standardisation. The same trend can be observed in the design of traffic signs; identical design can be found today in Germany or in Portugal. It would not be easy to choose the one that represents the best European character . To help the quest a little I have morphed all of the pictograms into one (right), which might offer a solution. Pedestrians that are not men nor women, walking without haste but not really dragging their heels, not really in any particular direction; a bit aimless.

This text emphasises that all languages are local, and suggests the use of working laterally, of reading a culture through its own symbols. It also serves as a simple reminder that nothing is neutral. Increasing the legibility of the world through uniformity denies the richness of experience.

About this article
This article is reprinted from Dot dot dot, graphic design / visual culture magazine, with permission.

About Peter Bilak
Peter Bilak is a graphic designer based in The Hague, NL working in the field of editorial, graphic, type and web design, on a scope of cultural and commercial projects. He designed several fonts for FontShop International, and custom typefaces for visual identities. In 2000, he organized and curated and exhibition of contemporary Dutch graphic design at the Biennale of graphic design in Brno, Czech Republic. He is one of the founding editors of dot dot dot, graphic design and visual culture magazine (together with Stuart Bailey, J rgen Albrecht, and Tom Unverzagt). In addition to daily design practice, Peter Bilak acts as a visiting tutor at the Royal Academy in The Hague, and regularly gives talks and workshops internationally.  

About Dot dot dot
Dot dot dot is an independent, after-hours, graphic design magazine intended to fill a gap in current arts publishing. We are not interested in re-promoting established material or creating another portfolio magazine. Instead, we offer inventive critical journalism on a variety of topics related both directly and indirectly to graphic design.