Wednesday, 10 November 2010


Signs are everywhere. We take them for granted, yet they are interesting objects in their own right. They are designed to convey a short message as directly as is possible, using graphics and/or words. Some don’t work very well, but we never think that they could be improved because we think we know what the message is. I’m not convinced.

When looking for a public toilet, especially in a hotel, I always look at both icons before deciding which door to enter. Some are obvious, but I’m often unsure until I’ve been able to see, and compare, the two. Some can be downright mystifying: a notable example in Hong Kong is Felix, a poseur’s bar at the top of the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon, the work of pretentious New York designer Philippe Starck. The two doors are alongside, but the letters ‘m’ and ‘f’ are part of the design, so you won’t spot them at first. This seems to me to breach the fundamental rule in all communication: to ensure that the information you wish to convey is clear and clearly understood by the recipient. Form over function.

However, for signs that totally fail to convey the intended message, or that convey an entirely different message, I present a few from my immediate neighbourhood:

Very slowly.

A difficult choice.

Stor in the name of the lop.

The next sign is interesting rather than misleading, although I do need to explain why I find it mildly amusing. It is located on the edge of a main road, from where it directs walkers along a narrow footpath across the fields to what at first glance might be the name of a village. But the only village at the end of the path is San Wai, where I live. It is in fact a legacy fossil. The literal translation is ‘horse shit area’. Note that I translated shi as ‘shit’; the Cantonese do have a word for ‘poo’, fan. The name cannot have had a polite origin. As to who kept horses here: it can only have been the British. We overlook a former British army camp, then known as Gallipolli Lines, so I’m assuming that cavalry regiments were once garrisoned there.


  1. I am teaching "Types of Reading" to my students now and one type of reading is that of Symbols. Boys seem to understand this better than girls. Gender also matters while reading symbols as these.

    Hope you have been well, Dennis.

    Joy always,

  2. All amusing to me, as you can probably guess.

  3. Thank you Susan. I have been well, just without the internet for the summer. Signs and symbols: an interesting field of study. I'll probably do a post on logos and icons sometime.

    Michael, glad to see you've stayed with me during my summer absence. Not everything here is about Hong Kong, but I expect that there will be plenty more in the coming months.

  4. I had a summer hiatus too, so I guess we're in the same boat.


Please leave a comment if you have time, even if you disagree with the opinions expressed in this post, although you must expect a robust defence of those opinions.