Thursday, March 11, 2010

I've seen the signs...

Signs should take you by the hand and guide you to where you want to go

This weeks Slate Culture Gabfest has a really interesting discussion on signage. No really. At least I hope it’s not only me who finds signage interesting. Julia Turner, one of the discussants, notes that her series on signs for Slate was spurred by a colleague who had phoned her whilst visiting London to say that he had just seen a road sign in front of a closed road saying why the road was closed, when it would be re-opened and what alternative route to take until it is. This was obviously something he had never seen before in the US and hence worthy of phoning a friend to report it although is pretty un-noteworthy in the UK.

I’ve been comparing Finnish and British roads signs for some time and deciding that British signs are actually much easier to navigate by. Finnish road signs seem to presume large amounts of local knowledge which rather negates their purpose. I had thought that this just handicapped non-Finns such as myself but now having discussed it with Finnish friends who have moved to Helsinki from else where in the country, it is reassuring to hear they had just as much trouble navigating by Helsinki’s ring road signs as I did to begin with. More interesting is how Helsinki isn’t sign posted until you are virtually there if coming from the north: so if you are leaving Oulu you better know the road number or the towns along the way, as the nation’s capital won’t get a sign until 500-odd kms later as you get to Lahti, the last town of any size before Helsinki. In the UK you get signs to London at great distances away. It’s the same problem leaving Helsinki as nothing further than Tampere or Lahti seems to get a look in on the signs, except interestingly, St Petersburg if you are going east (on a road sign not far from my house that I find absurdly romantic). Finland is a rather “insiders” country in many ways – probably the result of its enforced geopolitical isolation though the Cold War – and many things it is just presumed Finns will know. Road signs reflect this.

The comparison with Sweden is interesting. Pull out of the ferry terminal in central Stockholm and you immediately see signs for Haparanda (over a thousand kilometres away, on the border with Finland) and for Malmö in the far SW corner of the country – and that’s as good as saying: “the bridge to Denmark, Europe and the rest of the world”.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

The written part of the Finnish Driving test involves looking at actual road pictures and interpreting the signs. Generally they are quite easy, however the 'give way to traffic from the right rules' means that you have to look for the back of Give-Way signs (i.e. give way triangle signs that face the drivers from the right, but not you) and then decide whether to give way or not. This seemed a tad strange.

Cheers,

Jody

Toby - Northern Light Blog said...

It's not a tad strange - its absolutely bloody bonkers! :-) Do they actually tell you that in the lessons!? I always thought looking for the back of sign is what people are having to do due to the stupidity of having two priority system on one road system.

Anonymous said...

Actually never really did the lessons as they were in Finnish. I just sat in the back reading a English version of the Finnish driving instructions (I legally had to be there). I don't remember reading the 'back of sign rule' in the book, but it was in the practices and final test.

Cheers,

Jody

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