I have a fixation with signs. You know, those placards, fliers, posters, banners, sandwich boards, and digital screens that present us with information we apparently need. When Covid-19 reached my community and local businesses started to close-up, I remember looking out my office window at the hip restaurant across the street. The restaurant manager was busily plastering the double-glass entrance doors with a barrage of notices about limited restaurant access, take-out policies, customer-only restroom use, and mask requirements—all providing timely information but completely destroying any welcome aesthetic that would entice a hungry passer-by. I walked by later that day to examine all those door signs more closely. The multitude of crooked signs, some of them identical but in different spots on the doors, were informative enough. But I couldn’t even locate the menu through all the cluttered messaging!
A few days later and a few blocks away, one of our local coffee shops re-opened to perk up jittery pedestrians on their morning walks, and this establishment added new signage as well, though I had to look down to see it. Inventive baristas used bright blue painters’ tape to form X’s and arrows on the sidewalk indicating in what direction to line up at the order window, where to wait once an order was placed, and how far apart to stand from one another while doing so. Oh, and as I lifted my eyes from all the directional tape, I read “No mask. No service!” displayed prominently in no fewer than four different locations along the storefront.
Don’t get me wrong, all these signs were, and continue to be, important. Merchants are compelled to create as much clarity as they can to ensure the safety of their staff and their customers. But why did I feel so much sign overload as I adjusted to this new way of navigating public environments?
The Official Arrival of VUCA
The acronym, VUCA, has been heavily referenced by coaches for some years now. It was first used in 1987 to describe the post-Cold War multilateral world. At its essence, VUCA is evoked to describe a state of overwhelm where we can’t quite read the signs. VUCA references four interconnected experiences:
- V = Volatility—We struggle to navigate change as its pace quickens.
- U = Uncertainty—We are often surprised and yearn for predictability.
- C = Complexity—We try to decipher the multiplicity of confusing issues and create a logical cause-and-effect chain.
- A = Ambiguity—We misread a reality that increasingly hazy to us.
VUCA seems to have officially found its voice today as we come out of our homes, return to our gyms, salons, and eateries, and engage with the economy—for the first time in what feels like an eternity. Don’t you find you are becoming hyper-vigilant as you look left, right, ahead, up, and down to ensure you can read the signs, whether literal or implied?
Looking for Signs on College Campuses
My sign fascination took me to several California universities in the last month on mini-road trips with my beloved. Masked and determined, iPhone cameras at the ready, we walked through a total of five eerily vacant campuses and photographed dozens of signs: notices that were affixed to sandwich boards, plastered on walls, and taped hastily to building doors.
I was looking for physical manifestations that in spite a lack of traditional campus life this semester, I could find some hope, affirmation, and even clarity in these posted messages.
Of course, on most campuses we discovered the ubiquitous pre-Covid boulevard banners hanging from lampposts. They pictured confident students smiling at us under headings such as, “We define the future.” Also, there were all those impossible-to-decipher parking restriction signs: “Hmm, since the pay station is not working, should we park in a blue V spot, a green B spot, or take our chances and park in a convenient red A space?”
Of greatest interest were the signs addressing important pandemic protocols. Here is a sample of the signs we saw.
- “Avoid unnecessary contact.”
- “Cover your face. #Mask Up.”
- “Did you complete your daily health screen?” (A QR code appeared near the bottom of the sign to gain additional information).
- “NOTICE: Please practice social distancing. Only 10 people may be present at a time. Keep 6 feet at a minimum between each other. Once you have picked up your food, you need to take it to go.” (Apparently, there was a dining hall inside).
- “Stop the Spread of Germs!” (This sign was framed in masking tape, with visuals of how to properly blow our noses and dispose of the tissues, how to clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces, how to wash our hands, and advising us to stay home if we are feeling sick).
- “If you have been in contact with someone with novel coronavirus OR have been to China, Iran, Italy, Japan, or South Korea in the last 14 days AND if you have a fever or a cough or shortness of breath, then STOP and do not enter this building!” (The building was locked).
I have to admit, after strolling through five campus quads in the midst of this late summer heatwave, I was beginning to see a pattern. Most of the signs were instructional, intended to advise the daily handful of passers-by. Many of the signs were probably mounted just before work-from-home orders went into effect.
Signs of Invitation
Yet there was one sign we saw that struck a completely different tone. As we walked up to the front door of a pink, stuccoed student services building, we took in a beautifully formatted blue and gold sign, presented neatly with invisible tape on a clean glass door.
“Welcome to Career Services! WE ARE OPEN, VIRTUALLY. You can still access a variety of services and resources from any location. We look forward to connecting with you. Here’s how!” (The flier continued to list the office’s website as well as a help e-mail address and phone number with an assurance that all calls will be returned).
Like all the other signs, this particular one was instructional. We were advised to respond in some way. There is a big difference though, because this sign was also inviting us, almost encouraging us. It was hopeful, action-oriented, and crystal clear. The sign was solitary—it provided one simple message on a locked door. “WE ARE OPEN, VIRTUALLY.” Just four words on the door of a university building that would have otherwise communicated a discouraging vacancy in the absence of typical student, staff, and faculty foot traffic.
Do Our Signs Make a Difference?
The signs we post on our businesses and at our schools do matter. They form an impression, and perhaps in today’s VUCA world, the attention paid to shaping that impression is a skill worth developing. The more signs bombard our sightlines, the more they need to clearly instruct us, invite us, and remind us what we can do.
There was one other sign that really popped for me during our campus tours. A nicely branded large sandwich board read:
“Welcome! This Way to Mass on the Grass.”
Given all that is VUCA today, a hopeful sign inviting me to an outdoor distanced spiritual gathering sounded like a very good way to gain some clarity.
My thanks to the campuses through which we strolled, with special recognition to the faith-based University of San Diego and to UC Santa Barbara with its professionally signed Career Services office. Also, Erin Ashford, my photography partner for this article, graciously agreed to create a collage of some of her work to create a visual depiction of how hard it can be to read the signs.