-Pamela Kostur

Several years ago, I was on a road trip through New Mexico, after attending an IPCC (International Professional Communication Conference) in Santa Fe. Just outside of Albuquerque, a sign warned me that “gusty winds may exist.” I had to pull over I was laughing so hard. Perhaps I was overly sensitive to language-related issues, having just spent the last few days with professional communicators. But, I couldn’t help but wonder if the gusty winds would acknowledge the permission they had been granted.

Here’s the thing. Signs are content too. They direct us, inform us, but all too often, they misdirect us and confuse us. Sometimes they just make us laugh, not their intent, I’m sure. It’s not that I mind a good laugh, but when I need directions, or information, I need signs to communicate effectively.

One of these things is not like the other

Take this gem, spotted at a Longos supermarket in Toronto.

Longos portion control aisle





Since when is portion control an item in a supermarket? Besides, isn’t everything in a grocery store portion controlled? Aren’t oranges, apples, bananas, by their very design, portion controlled? You can buy a bunch of bananas, but presumably, eat one at a time, begging the question—are individual bananas included in the portion control aisle? What about individually-wrapped chicken breasts, or a steak?

I think I get what’s going on here, but I’m not sure I’d go into a supermarket looking for the “portion control” aisle. Even if I were, it’s a strange category. After all, a package of something can have its contents separated into portions, but that doesn’t mean you can’t eat the whole box if you’re so inclined. To my way of thinking, this categorization is just weird, and misleading.

Lost and confused

I’m easily confused at airports. There’s so much going on, and so many signs demanding our attention. Sometimes, just getting to the terminal building can be challenging.

At Toronto’s Pearson International, there’s a car park connected to a monorail station, with train service to the terminal buildings. The monorail waiting area is like a big hallway, with entrances to the monorail on both sides. It’s a great service, for the most part.

Early one morning, the scrolling sign above the doors to one of the monorail entrances read:

Single train service 1

Single train service



We stood there for several minutes, mulling over the message. What does single train service mean? When all trains are operational, does the message say multi-train service, or two-train service, or three train service? Just how many trains are there anyway? Will single train service affect how long it will take for us to get to the terminal?

Wouldn’t it be simpler to say something like, “Out of service. Use other platform.”

Just for laughs

Leaving a party one night, I was glad to see this sign, especially considering the few glasses of wine I had consumed. But, it still made me laugh! At least it got its warning across.

Uneven ground









And then there’s this one, in Toronto’s Gerrard St. Chinatown. Every time I see it, I giggle. I wonder how the store owners chose the items to list on the sign. I have yet to go into the store to see what they really sell, and to figure out the odd categorization. What is a winter accessory, exactly? Hats, scarves, mits, I’m guessing, although hats are also listed separately. Could I also buy a shovel or an ice scraper here? What constitutes a gift? Couldn’t most items in the store be given as gifts? I’m not sure what the store’s name is; I simply refer to it as the Toys Gifts Hats store.

Toys hats and gifts









Signs can be funny, frustrating, useful (or not), misleading. I want whoever creates the content for signs to remember that signs communicate. The content has to be clear, it must not be open to interpretation, and occasionally, it can make me laugh, but only if its message is clear.

Do you have any favourite signs? Send us your signs, tell us why or why they don’t work, and we’ll share them in our blog.