Awareness comes from a new twist to an old sign

How do I kill 45 minutes during a cab ride to the airport at six in the morning? I look at all the signs, of course.

How do I kill 45 minutes during a cab ride to the airport at six in the morning? I look at all the signs, of course.

The Gardiner Expressway, a major route to Toronto’s airport, is a cornucopia of commercial signage that includes full-motion video, back-lights, jumbos with extensions, signs with electronic weather and time checks and signs created by live vegetation.

It is a colourful swirl of brand icons and it’s a joyous way to spend time – if you’re a media person, that is. On the other hand, our job is to get the client’s message noticed so cornucopias can be a problem. Perhaps a close look at the entire signage milieu would help.

Commercial boards are supposed to be noticed. I know from my years working with the Canadian Outdoor Measurement Bureau that out-of-home structures have height, angle and size dimensions that are mathematically derived to ensure exposure as consumers zip along the Gardiner or any other motorway. These structures exist to say: ‘I’m a great brand and you’d love to own me but there’s no obligation to obey.’

If you relax your gaze for a moment you will become aware of a pervasive blanket of signage: licence plates, storefront signs, highway signs, signs on the sides of trucks, street signs, address numbers. I’m not a semiotics expert but we seem to live in a signage fog – a kind of visual white noise.

This massive yet unobserved signage fog was dramatically depicted in a photojournalism piece I saw some time ago. A colour photo of an ordinary streetscape was transformed into a very unordinary scene by airbrushing all signs into blank, white spaces. Where one would expect to see a stop sign, a white octagon was left. Instead of seeing ‘Eat At Joe’s’, we saw a white rectangular box mounted on the front of a restaurant. Cars had white blank spaces where licence plates should have been.

The effect was eerie. We become aware of signs only when the words and symbols disappear. Until then, the information just naturally floats about in an almost invisible state, seen only when necessary.

Signs that make up this visual white noise can be categorized according to the information task they’re designed to tackle. Take licence plates as an example. This form of signage behaves like children from the time of Queen Victoria – ‘seen and not heard’. Plates contain a code that differentiates one vehicle from another. Plates are all around us and they’re ignored.

Highway and city street traffic signs occupy the other end of the communications spectrum. Like licence plates, they are highly iconographic, almost code-like but unlike plates, they exist to be seen and understood. They are capable of true communication and so they share many mass-media characteristics with commercial billboards. But unlike commercial billboards, these signs must be obeyed.

Storefront and street signs fall somewhere between licence plates and highway signs on the communication scale because they say: ‘Here I am if you need me’. Consumers apply self-selection to these types of signs. I’m looking for Joe’s and there it is. These are signs that provide one-on-one communication.

One further segment of signage says: ‘I’m here but don’t come in!’ You’ll spot these signs on the sides of tall office buildings, sporting corporate badges. This is a form of corporate chest thumping, not an invitation to enter.

Near the corner of Toronto’s Church and Carlton streets you’ll find the name Sterling Bank of Canada etched in stone above the doorway of what is now a Pizza Pizza outlet. This is an example of a very strange subsection of corporate signage; companies now dead but whose message still seeks an audience. These are lingering voices from the corporate netherworld. These signs say: ‘I’m not here but come in.’ which is the opposite message being communicated by companies that are alive and well.

Somewhere in this signage fog there are marketing and media lessons to be learned. Want to attract the consumer’s attention? Create a sign with a communication dynamic that differs from that sign’s category. Vanity plates are a good example of this practice. Vanity plates stand out because, unlike all the plates around them, they are not undecipherable codes. ‘WWW GUY’ is not brilliant copywriting. It is brilliant media.

Are you old enough to remember Burma-Shave roadside signs? They grabbed the viewer’s attention because they were highway signs that shirked their strict ‘read and obey’ mandate. They assumed the role of an ad billboard. They stood out because they rebelled against the media characteristics within their signage category.

Sam The Record Man and Toronto bargain retailer Honest Ed have storefront signs that also rebel. Instead of following the standard storefront signage rule, ‘Here I am if you need me,’ these loud, Vegas-type signs act more like ad billboards and proclaim: ‘Here I am. You need me!’

Signage is a remarkable medium. Most signage is a pervasive but strangely unobtrusive fog. Some signs exist not to be read. Some signs speak only to those searching for the sign. Some signs shout out to all who pass. And smart media people can produce brand awareness, devoid of brilliant creative, by simply changing the sign’s natural communication dynamic.

Rob Young is a founding partner and SVP, planning and research, at Toronto-based Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell. He can be reached at