I just got back to the States yesterday, from a lovely stay with SLS in Vilnius, Lithuania, and my mind is buzzing both from jet lag and from the memory of the many bees that curlicue that city. There are too many things I want to say, but one very simple one is: the size of signs matters.
In Vilnius, the signs are very small. The sign for a restaurant may only be a foot square, the name of a shop may be in tiny letters over the doorway. Upon first arriving, I didn’t even notice: I was too overwhelmed by the narrow winding streets, the baroque churches, the strange lowness of the clouds. But the longer I stayed, the more I noticed how small the signs were. I mostly noticed because I was unable to tell my fellow travelers where I had eaten dinner or bought the most delicious rye bread because I simply hadn’t noticed the sign.
In America, as with so many things, we have decided that bigger is simply better. This means that supermarkets, those most banal of suburban conveniences, are billed like Broadway shows, three-foot high letters announcing their name to the quiet parking lot. In short, I was used to a lot of signs and big ones, in bright colors, on stretched awnings, in neon, in a variety of fonts and scripts specially designed to be easy to read and appealing to the eye. In fact, it is difficult to even think of many American businesses without visually bringing to mind the signs that label their buildings. Blockbuster, though now all but defunct, is a good example. This even has a special name: logo, which, I suppose, indicates that the modern world is no longer in need of the “s” in logos, and can do very well with only a bucket of fried chicken and toilet paper which purports to be tested by a family of red bears.
Anyway, it would be easy to complain about the visual chaos of American space and the negative effect of our large signage; one hears such arguments on NPR all the time, especially about the new LED signs about to be put on buses, and quite frankly I never had any interest in these arguments before. They seemed sort of ninny-ish and hysterical. My attitude was, I suppose, that the future was going to happen to us whether we liked it or not, and that the future wanted brightly lit signage on buses, advertising everywhere, a carnival of light and sound. I did not like the idea, but I did not feel it was the biggest item on the agenda. In the face of war, who can bring themselves to argue about bus signage?
But I became interested by what happened to my eye when I had been living for a week or so in an environment with such small signs. What happened is: my eye became curious. It started to wander and meander and take in smaller details than it had been capable of before. It started to look for things and memorize. It became relaxed and began to play.
I don’t have a real political point here. I still doubt very much that I am going to begin protesting the LED signs on buses or marching for the dismantling of billboards. And yet, I suspect, as with so many things in life, the smaller the problem seems the larger its effect. In the same way that health can be bought by a series of very tiny choices, of, say, eating a banana instead of a slice of cake, perhaps a happier, saner and more playful and productive populace could be bought with a size limit on signage.
Regardless, we would do well to pay attention to how frightened our eyes have become and give them a chance, at least once a week, to play, to investigate places and things without knowing ahead of time what they are.