Sincere signwriting

More great stuff from my favourite UK blogger, Brian Micklethwait, albeit while wearing his Samizdata trousers and hat.

Brian says:

That is a sign which I think I would have noticed even if I had not been noticing signs generally at all.

It’s as if its creator was, while creating it, thinking and feeling something rather unusual. He actually cared about people reading his sign and about people doing what he said. He really wanted to communicate something.

He thought about it. How can I word it, he said to himself, to make sure that people pay attention, refrain from swimming in these truly dangerous waters, in which, I know for a fact, in 1995, no fewer than seven – seven – people were drowned?
How can I get that across? Lives are at stake here. Before I die, I want to make the world a slightly better place. This is my chance.

You can see the scene in his office, in 1999 or whenever it was.
“I’m stuck,” said he.

Stuck? Relax, said his less committed colleagues. It’s only a sign. Nobody reads signs. They’re only there to avoid legal liability when some idiot does whatever it is.

“But I really want people to read it! What can I put?”

I like to think that at this point, a wise and experienced sign writer said: “Put your pen down, and tell me what you are trying to say? Say it it out loud.”

“Say it out loud?”


“Well, what I want to say is that during 1995 there were seven deaths in docklands waters due to people ignoring these signs! These waters are dangerous! No swimming!”

“Well, why don’t you put that?”


“Put what you just said. That’ll get their attention. Your sincerity will shine through.”

Seriously, there is a real problem with all these signs, not unlike the problem of too many laws. People just switch off. They screen them out. Call it: sign inflation. So many warnings add up to … no warning at all.

The narrative simplicity invokes Douglas Adams for me. Brilliant.
But that last line does make a very good point. Do we really need to be told that there is a danger of drowning in water? Of course there is and of course we don’t – or rather, we shouldn’t. But because someone decides that we do need that reminder along with many, many others, we find ourselves overloaded with information, to the point that we stop listening and we drown.

I would love to know whether the work of our sincere signwriter had any effect on the water-based fatalities in and around the Royal Victoria Dock. Perhaps sincere signwriting is actually the only way of saving lives, but even that would only work in the short-term before we become blasé to the statistics of 1995 and since.

Photo: Brian Micklethwait/Samizdata

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