I had a college-mate who used to carve his name on his writing desks and every surface available, and imaginable. The toilets in the college belonged to him and so did the trees and park benches.
Driving around in Colombo these days reminds me of him. Even though he is a good few thousand miles away from home, he seems to have left his legacy behind with the business community.
Of all the temporary road signs in town, there's hardly any that qualifies to be a proper traffic sign. So are some of the permanent ones. Traffic signs are the language of the road and it is closely guarded, and followed by the British to the letter. They even have a Road Traffic Regulation Act that defines every aspect of road signage and its placement. So do the Americans, the Europeans and the rest of the world where common sense still prevails.
We, the islanders of Paradise, do seem to think different. A turn-off on the road is a good place to have my logo legally placed; and the best way is to offer a traffic sign that does the job. Roads and their signage are a right-royal-mess in Colombo – thanks to the good samaritans who donate the signage to the City Traffic Police. I would be surprised if the City Traffic or the Municipality does not have funds to put-up signs themselves – but thanks to the advertising and marketing gurus, we have created another a sea of branding opportunities that has swallowed up the beauty of the city. Traffic and information signs in the city are cluttered with sponsorship messages, branding and logos, some are almost impossible to identify until you are too confused, too close or too late.
Sponsorship is a good idea. But a good idea badly executed, is a bad idea. In this case, it is a very, very, bad idea.
All we need is standardization. For example, the traffic signs should remain traffic signs, not hoardings or display boards. They should not have any other branding or logos on them at all. But, considering the fact that this is Sri Lanka and the financial aspects... and the view point of the good samaritan, we could do with a bit of branding space on the signage. Ideally, limited to a pre-defined, confined space: say around 15% of the total height of the sign, for example. This space, reserved at the lower part of the sign, should not over-power the visual impact of the traffic sign; therefore, ideally should be monochrome or reversed out.
Then, the visibility of the sign is undisturbed and the purpose of the sign is not lost.
Even if I have my wish granted, and the signs are rid of unnecessary branding, our people need to know about designing the signs, if we were to get this right. There are internationally accepted – ISO Standard – signs and symbols for every possible requirement on the road. However, we do not seem to be aware of this either – we are great at painstakingly cutting out stencils in Sinhala and spray painting them all over town. Some are almost impossible to read, but, thankfully the city is so congested we DO have the luxury of time to sit in our vehicles and actually decode the stencils.
Simplicity is key: follow the standards and there is no need to write in three languages when a simple symbol can do the job. Traffic diversions, detours, road closures and check points... they are all there. If not, we can adapt or create a simple pictogram that works. The Passport Control sign can also work for a check point, easily.
Most countries that use more than one official language have adapted a system where a typical traffic sign is a pictogram with no writing, because everyone understands a simple picture (and there are no ill-feelings of racism or inferiority) whenever you see a traffic sign.
Then comes the next problem: implementation. Most traffic, warning, and information signs are fixed on the wrong side of the road – hidden away between store names and lottery booths. Traffic signs are for the drivers, not the passengers and pedestrians – so the best place is on the driver’s side, in a place clearly visible and undisturbed by the clutter.
Roadside information is as vital as any other information, in this day and age. Leave aside informing traffic congestions and road closures to drivers, some cities like Sydney even warns people when they are ready to plant a tree on the side of the walkway.
Now, that’s something nice and refreshing to know when you are driving by.