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My last post
here reported on a variety of defensive signs made chiefly by
non-designers concerned with matters of safety, convenience,
aesthetics and the behavior of their fellow citizens, both human
and canine. Two of the most common displays I noticed took the form
of pleas, petitioning restaurateurs not to leave menus at the door
and neighbors not to let dogs urinate on flowers and other living
things. A few days after my story ran (no connection implied), New
York City officials revealed that a state law prohibited the
littering of property with menus and other unwelcome advertising
materials. The law, which was passed in January, is about to be
enforced by the city, which didn't get around to it until now
because it required enforcement rules from the City's Department of
Actually, the law comes packaged with its own rules, the first
of which is that property owners are protected only if they post a
sign declaring that the offending materials are unwelcome. This
seems a little like the Orphan Works Act, which, as I understand
it, will protect what you create only if you take pains to state
explicitly that you want such protection. Many of the amateur signs
say “Please,” but the city takes a “No More Mr. Nice Guy” approach.
DO NOT PLACE UNSOLICITED ADVERTISING MATERIALS ON THIS PROPERTY is
the stern municipal message. To qualify, this message must be
expressed in letters one inch or more high, displayed on a surface
at least five inches tall and seven inches wide. If the stuff is
dropped off anyway, the violator faces fines ranging from $250 for
a first offense to $1,000 for repeated offenses. A sample sign is
available free online from the city for reprinting.
Users must register with StopLawnLitter to use this
A more palpable version, ready for installation, is offered by
an advocacy organization called StopLawnLitter.org. The Stop
Lawn Litter sign is also free but copyrighted, even though the
content is essentially the same as the city's, but with an
additional graphic defining the unwelcome matter more specifically
as “menus, advertising and litter” and certifying that it was
posted by a person who has registered with the organization. The
organization boasts that its sign is “self-adhering, UV and weather
resistant, and will last for years,” adding that “even non-English
speaking carriers will easily recognize the colorful graphics from
a distance.” If there is any doubt about that, Stop Lawn Litter
“works with the distribution industry to train carriers to look for
our signs.” And if that isn't enough, homeowners receive
instructions on effective placement techniques, helpfully advising
property owners to “pretend you're dropping lawn litter on your
Such advice is necessary, for one of the FAQs is: “Where do I
put my sign?” (Am I the only person who wonders whether most of the
FAQs found on websites have been frequently, or ever, asked by
anyone?) Stop Lawn Litter's counsel is: “Place your sign so it can
be easily seen by carriers.”
An artistic response to lawn litter (photo: a-birdie).
That answer may provoke a cynical duh, but in fact the trouble
with the sign is exactly that: It can be easily seen! Although that
is a prized advantage—even a raison d'etre—for signage in
general, in this case it is not, for, like the official city sign,
this one really is itself litter of a sort. True—unlike menus, bags
of coupons for neighborhood shops, and promotions for
locksmiths—the sign is not recurring. There is only one of it. But
one is more than enough, for the one is fixed in place, and is in
most respects at least as obtrusive as the stuff it is designed to
The device is well intentioned and speaks to a common complaint.
But not everyone thinks it is just. The manager of the Hunan Wok, a
restaurant in Brooklyn, protests that, “Some people enjoy the
fliers.” Nor does everyone consider it effective. Many property
owners believe the fines are too low to stop the crime.
Free sign offered by the
NYC Department of Sanitation.
The co-owner of the property I share resents the mandatory
requirement, arguing that even if the signs are appropriately
placed, the force of law is not. She asks, “Why should I be
required to put that thing in my yard or on my door to protect
myself from these abuses, when I am not required to take similar
measures against comparable abuses? I don't wear a sign on my chest
saying that I don't want to be punched or kicked. I don't have to
put a notice on my car to let people know that I don't want the
paint scratched with a key. Some things are taken for granted and
need to be. These regulations put the onus on me, instead of on the
litterer, where it belongs.”
She is right, I guess. But the law applies to a category of
crime for which it is difficult, if not impossible, to punish the
perp without simultaneously punishing the victim. Thus we are
forced to uglify our property in order to prevent it from being
uglified by others. At this point the law does not solve a problem;
it merely calls attention to it. But attention—unwarranted,
unsightly and unsought—is precisely what the property and its owner
wish to eliminate.
Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design
and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of
I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt
and is the recipient of the
2011 AIGA Medal.
Traffic signs set the rules of the road, but signage alone won't create order where only chaos exists. Caplan recalls the postwar pileup on China's highways and byways.
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