garden tales from a Brit at home and abroad
Signage. It sounds the most boring of topics. But in public parks and gardens, signs can make such a difference. Good ones make us feel welcome, confident, wanted. Bad ones leave us confused and irritated, sensing that our presence is merely tolerated.
I’ve been noticing some examples in Parisian landscapes.
First, some new signs in the jardin des Tuileries. Located in sensible places and frequently consulted, they are sleek and modern, with a map of the whole garden, and some arrows showing you the direction of the main features. To me they say: We don’t want you to see this as a fusty historic park: it’s a contemporary place. And we want you to stroll around and enjoy it all.
My only complaint about the Tuileries signs would be about this one at an entrance on the rue de Rivoli. Same simple design, but way too much information on some pretty complex opening times. It’s telling me: We don’t care if you feel welcome. We have our own elaborate systems and you just need to fit in with them. That panel along the bottom is also slightly discomfiting: We have already thought of two things you can’t do here, but we have left lots of room to list other forbidden activities when we think of them.
Here’s a terrible example. It’s the entrance to the historic cemetery at Montparnasse in the 14th arrondissement. Those forbidding stone walls have a tiny brass plaque with opening times, and then some random interdictions: no dogs; no parking because the firefighters need access; oh, and no parking anyway. With that forlorn rubbish bin and the glimpse of a barrier beyond the walls, it must be one of the most unwelcoming entrances in Paris. It says: We never give a moment’s thought to our visitors. Except when they do something annoying, and then we tell them to stop.
Here’s another poor one, this time in the newly restored glasshouses at the jardin des Plantes in the 5th. Each glasshouse has lots of these obtrusive, multi-coloured information signs, set on twiddly metal frames. To me they mutter: We don’t really think our plants are interesting enough. We don’t trust them to hold your attention. We hope to distract you with these signs.
Generally the signage there is woeful, but here’s a good one, from the Alice in Wonderful labyrinth. It’s fun, appropriate, and shows you the way to something you may otherwise have missed. It says: We think a lot about your enjoyment. Have some more fun over here!
The next time you see a sign in a public park, think what it tells you – not about opening times or toilet locations – but about the attitude to visitors of that place.
I am going to look out for more examples too.
Post script: If you’re interested in signage, you might like to visit my gallery of other wonderful and woeful examples.