Learning to Drive: Poorly Designed Road Signs

Stop sign with the word "dumb" on it

One of my goals for 2020 was to learn how to drive — something I believe is well overdue for me, a 25-year-old. So, over the last few months, I’ve been studying for ICBC’s Knowledge Test, which is a preliminary multiple-choice test that all licensed drivers are required to pass.

The Knowledge Test covers nearly every driving topic imaginable: from tire pressure to space margins and beyond. I did notice that the authors seem to have glossed over the topic of what you should do when you feel the urge to emulate Hollywood racing movies on the road — but the foundations of good driving are all there. However, while most of the material falls under the umbrella of “common sense,” some of it is less intuitive.

Take, for example, road signs. Dozens of these symbols appear on and around our roads to guide our driving and keep us safe. And yet, so many of these signs reach hieroglyphic levels of inscrutableness. Some of these signs are so egregious that if they were designed by a modern UI/UX professional, they’d be the laughing stock of the office (or heralded as a subversive design god, depending on what office you’re talking about).

So, today, I thought I’d take a look at several of the worst offenders. Maybe, in time, we as a species can unite to oust these horrendous designs in favour of some that are less nonsensical. But, until earth’s mightiest minds gather to rectify the situation, I’m going to make mildly-indignant stabs at the subject on my keyboard and post the results to my internet blog. That’ll show em, dammit!

Three Bad Signs: Here They Are

Three road signs that denote an obstruction ahead

A good sign intuitively elicits meaning. It requires little-to-no-thought to understand and causes little-to-no confusion.

But, aside from seemingly inspiring the design patterns of OFF-WHITE clothing, these signs evoke about as much meaning as a child shoving crayons up its goober-filled nostrils. There’s no clear illustration or instruction: they’re just a series of parallel lines cascading in various directions.

In case you were wondering, here’s what they mean:

  • Sign 1: Obstruction ahead; keep left or right
  • Sign 2: Obstruction; keep right
  • Sign 3: Obstruction; keep left

Okay, so simple enough once you understand the context, right? Maybe. But stick with me: these signs also manage to defy the logic of human movement and space.

Look at signs two and three: the ones with stacked parallel lines. Given that you generally move forward when you drive, it would follow that sign two is telling you to go forward and to the left, right? Similarly, sign three would be instructing you to move forward and to the right.

Nope. It’s the opposite. The signs are pointing downwards and backward. Because, y’know, we co-opted these from the Bizzaro world after waging war on their population and enslaving the backward populace. Of course!

Sign one also manages to commit a Big Time Fuckup™. The arrow in the sign is a near-universal, unmistakable symbol for up, or forward. Here, it means the complete opposite and suggests you move any direction but forward unless you thoroughly enjoy making fleshy pancakes out of you and your passengers’ faces.

But hey, don’t take my word for it: sign three also managed to bewilder many 45,000 British Columbians with active licenses who took ICBC’s Drive Smart Refresher test, where it ranked among the top questions that were answered incorrectly.

Somehow, I managed to process all of this non-intuitive visual absurdity and passed the knowledge test with flying colors. But I can’t help but feel like the world’s road signs need a design overhaul by somebody more in-tune with human intuition and reason. Hell, maybe the OFF-WHITE guy could do it. He certainly seems like he has a knack for streamlined, blunt designs. Take his recent rug collaboration with IKEA, for instance:

Grey rug that says "KEEP OFF" and green rug that says "WET GRASS"

Featured image is a photoshopped version of this photo by Unsplash user will0629

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