I used to work with a very astute site manager at the National Capital Commission (NCC) in Ottawa, Canada. He spent an inordinate amount of his time managing land-use, or rather, land mis-use issues. The NCC owns much of the prime parkland in the capital region, including an extensive greenbelt with a sprawling path and trail system, so the problems that fell under his jurisdiction would range from the perennial dog control issues through to the more exotic, such as people illegally picking wild leeks or trying to snowmobile on ski trails. The answer to most issues almost inevitably came around to signage. It seemed like almost monthly I would be asked to come up with a new prohibitory pictogram for some new transgression that members of the public would commit. After explaining the latest requirement, my client would often say to me “I really only need one sign, with one word on it: THINK”
He was right of course, so much of what the NCC felt compelled to specifically prohibit fell into the category of stupid, thoughtless and/or rude behaviour. Interestingly, back 25 years or more ago, the NCC had a policy of only signing with permissive regulatory signage. Their concept for signage was “if we don’t say you can do it, assume you can’t”. Instead of the literally dozens of dog control sign variants now in their catalog, they had one. The dog control sign showed a dog on a leash with a green circle surrounding it. If the sign was posted, you could walk your dog on a leash, period. No sign, no dogs. It was a simple system that resulted in a very uncluttered environment on NCC lands.
I don’t know when the first breach in this permissive signage model occurred, but it opened the floodgates to a veritable torrent of prohibitory signage on NCC lands. I don’t mean to suggest that the NCC is alone in its addiction to red circles with slashes through them, far from it. Prohibitory signs have proliferated on public sites everywhere it seems. They’re often the first thing you see on entering a public space and I don’t think anybody feels that this is a great step forward for public sites. It often sends a very mixed message at the threshold of the space — welcome, but you can’t do any of these things while you’re here. It’s classic bad user experience practice to create such a conditional welcome, even worse if non-compliance is backed up with the threat of fines.
How did we end up in this situation? It’s tempting to blame a declining sense of personal responsibility or a societal swing toward law and order and litigiousness. That could be partly true, but my guess is that there are just more and more of us trying to use a limited supply of public spaces, and that we have not quite yet adapted to what that means for personal behaviour. I don’t know what the correct design response is for this prohibitory pressure, but I’m hoping readers will share their insights. My old client at the NCC may well have been on to something though, we could replace a lot of regulatory signage with “THINK”.