December 14, 2007

Going with the glow

Most cities (probably all cities) have official boards that control signage in their communities. It's obvious that signs can be an effective  instrument for identifying the names, functions, and products of businesses. The problem with signage begins, however, when one business wants to outdo another one with its signs. Even in small cities like Missoula, where I live now, businesses go through endless battles in front of their signage boards. Arlington County, Virginia, just across the Potomac from DC, seems to be struggling with this issue right now. Like other areas, it has rules that restrict businesses from putting up massive billboards and huge neon signs. Just how massive and how neon is usually the sticking point.

There may be a parallel here with written language, where we use underlining, CAPITAL LETTERS, italics, exlamation marks!, color, and increased print size to emphasize the points we are trying to make. In speech, we mostly just talk louder. But too much emphasis in either writing or speaking tends to work against the communicator's purpose. Defining the line beween enough and too much can become a problem. The goal of signage is a bit different. It seems to require shouting and visually calling attention to itself. Like written language, signage involves the size of the message but also stuff like electric lighting, symbols, effective placement, directionality, intermittant flashing, size, architectural appropriateness, and a strong commercial need to attract rather than simply to identify or emphasize. Perhaps more important, signs have to compete for attention with those of business competitors. They turn out  to look like shouting, even screaming, which brings me to an acronym I learned from the Post article--"LED."

The Consumer Electronics Association--the people who brought the petition to the Arlington County Board--laughed when one of the board members admitted that he didn't know what LED stands for. Dummy! We all know this, don't we? It's a kind of electroluminescence called "light-emitting diode." I guess you're supposed to be up on such terms if you sit on a signage board.

Arlington County is a rapidly growing community trying to attract new commerce. It's in the same pickle as most towns, especially those who don't want to look like Las Vegas or Times Square. The signage board members scorn "visual clutter" but they also want to be business friendly and not too bland. So they argue about all the signage issues that other communities find so difficult to resolve.

It's probably time for Language Log to erect a huge, flashing LED sign here at the Plaza because we too want to be business friendly and not too bland--although I'm having a hard time thinking who our competitors might be.

Posted by Roger Shuy at December 14, 2007 01:58 PM