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Better urban linguistic landscape makes for livelier cities

LIU LIFEN and JIAO MIN | 2023-01-19 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

A traffic board in Beijing Photo: Weng Rong/CSST

Adopting a “one-size-fits-all” approach to urban signage while rejecting stylistic variety may reduce a city’s liveliness and even destroy its “soul.” Restoring a city’s unique characteristics and urban landscape is something we must take into full account when establishing an urban signage system. 


Exhibiting vigor and features

Cities are gathering places for people. They are synthetic spaces composed of housing, transportation, commodity production, sanitation and public services, land use, etc. Its orderly operation depends greatly on the effectiveness of its signage system. The various instructions, indicators, and warning signs are there to regulate people’s behavior. Together they make up a city’s signage landscape, the city’s core component, and a sort of “third eye” for city dwellers. It is ubiquitous. It exists everywhere humans are found, even in the most remote of places. A city’s signage landscape is like a book with various styles of illustrations, waiting to be read. 

A city is a community consisting of various functional areas, including recreational areas, office area, industrial district, and neighborhoods. These functional areas overlap and influence one another. When planning the physical looks of these functional areas, we must ensure that the building blocks match their counterparts vertically to foster spatial beauty. We must also consider how the functional areas influence each other horizontally and coordinate with their surroundings in terms of function, industrial layout, spatial pattern, infrastructure, and environmental protection. A well-coordinated space can strike its viewers as an orderly, rhythmic, naturally flowing landscape.

Signs, as an important element of a functional area’s physical look, must synchronize with other physical elements in the area in terms of their varieties, densities, locations, styles, sizes, shapes, colors, etc., thereby displaying good logic and structure. Meanwhile, it is also necessary to ensure that neighboring functional areas are consistent in terms of their social functions, so as to forge an organic whole in which different areas are connected in a proper layout. 

The quantity of sign categories in a city is partially determined by the functional area in which they are found. Their density corresponds to the relative importance of a functional area, the dynamics of its production and people’s life, and its pedestrian volume. In words, the density is proportionate to the residents’ everyday needs of traffic, life, production, and leisure activities. 

When deciding where to place the signs, it is important to consider its function area and the surrounding infrastructure and environment. It is also a must to place them in good order according to standards so that they do not impede people’s production and life. 

Signage styles not only need to show the features of each district, but also go along with the overall positioning of the city. For instance, a city with ancient culture tends to opt for plain and graceful signage boards, whereas a modernized city would choose chic and grand ones. The sizes, designs, colors, and textures of the signs also need to match the surroundings. The signs also work in concert with the local architectures, functional space’s cultural history and humanistic characteristics, while strengthening their ties with local green space to make the entire street or district visually harmonious. The facade of a signboard needs to coordinate with the city’s appearance to make the city neat and beautiful. Urban signage layouts should demonstrate the city’s order and pace, balance uniformity and variety, and maintain the liveliness of an urban space. 

A city is a spatial community and system with multiple centers, key points, layers, different styles, and various degrees of intensity. Different functional areas have different geographical features, which influence how signs are displayed, including their styles, colors, textures, and how they are placed. 

Different colors are chosen for different signs in various functional areas. Recreational areas would adopt livelier styles and brighter colors to create a more joyous atmosphere. Office areas tend to choose simple and elegant hues to build a quiet working environment with good taste. Industrial areas are more into revivifying industrial elements, hence are dominated by minimalistic, grand, graceful, and solemn tones. Residential areas pay special attention to comforts and practicality and are therefore matched with colors displaying tidiness and economical beauty. Distinctive districts embody a fusion of cultural and natural landscape, making full use of mother nature’s splendid colors. 

The sign textures of places with different positioning also differ. Historical cultural blocks like to use traditional wooden signboards to highlight traditional culture; modern business streets use metallic signboards to demonstrate modern fashion. Streets with exotic elements choose textures that match their architectural styles in order to display exoticism while luring people into an immersive other land. 

Specifications and placement methods of signage with different functions also differ. Official signage follows a special set of systems with uniform requirements, usually placed in an orderly manner. The standards for the installation of non-official signs, especially commercial signs, are more flexible. Those signs are uniquely designed, and never fail to bring a city’s liveliness into reality. 


Symbols’ functions and combination

Any one of the city’s functional areas can be seen as a small social space, where people go about their lives. Thus, signage landscape must exist to provide directions, notifications, restrictions, warnings, proposals, and advertisements. Directive signage gives directions and shows people essential and useful information. These signs are designed to remind the public of facts or phenomenon, while helping them get to know the place or reminding them to be aware of the location’s special conditions and features in case of accidents. Restrictive signage landscape exists to govern people’s behaviors by requiring them to obey the rules. Prohibitive signs are there to warn the public what is permitted and what is not. They signify prohibitive and corresponding consequences. Communicative or persuasive signs are usually statements or exclamatory sentences that point out problems and persuade people to correct them. They may also advocate or promote new ways of working or living, or remind the public to pay attention to their behaviors. These signs are created to publicize something and to inspire or motivate the public. Advertising signs try to promote products or services to lure viewers into shopping.  

Signage landscapes with different functions are made up of various combinations of text, images, and colors. The ways by which these elements are organized varies: one sign can consist mostly of text, another predominantly of images; some combine both text and imagery, while making color the most common element. The arrangement of color in the signage landscape needs to be consistent with main colors of the city, and complement the environment while highlighting the city’s characteristics by bringing out the liveliness of a neat and tidy city. 

The constitutive elements of a signage landscape include symbols like text, image, and colors. They are the main tools humans use to express their thoughts and feelings, which makes them the soul of a signage landscape. Each symbol carries a different meaning. Text carries information in a more direct, accurate, and clear way, and is therefore semantically transparent. However, text-only signs require viewers to have a certain literacy level and they are less visually appealing. In comparison, images are more ambiguous. But images can transverse national and geographic boundaries, and thus can be interpreted by most and are easier to remember. Colors are the most dynamic and powerful element that go straight for people’s emotions, and therefore are stable and last longest in people’s memories. Colors are usually supplementary elements that work with text and images to construct meaning. When combined with text, colors help the viewers understand the information by helping them avoid overlooking certain information and heighten the atmosphere by expressing various emotions. When combined with images, colors enhance their impact and appeal while enhancing viewers’ memories and making the sign more interesting to look at. When the three elements are all adopted, they complement one another to highlight the subject and bring out the style. 

Different symbols have their own features and functions. They keep dialogue within urban spaces smooth by working alone or together according to different scenarios, thereby displaying an open, inclusive, and lively urban space. A landscape usually shows the spatial characteristics and features endowed by its creator. However, the process of creating language symbols is not done at will, nor can the symbols be used to refer to anything we want. Creating a signage landscape is not a random, arbitrary accumulation of sign boards. Nor is it a simple match-up of “what meaning one wants to convey” and “what the symbol actually conveys.” The creation of an urban signage landscape takes the proper combination of outside beauty (beauty of form) and symbols’ meanings (beauty of meaning), to realize the coexistence of language and spirit. Just as writer Lu Xun put it, “... is beautiful in sense so as to appeal to the heart, ... to the ear and in form, so as to appeal to the eye... be as beautiful as the original in sense, in sound and in form.” Only when the beauty of look and meaning are combined can an urban signage landscape bring more vitality to the city. 


Professor Liu Lifen and professor Jiao Min are from the Center for Translation Studies at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies. 

Edited by WENG RONG