Not in My Front Yard!

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 Sanitation.

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.

Rights-protected sign by

Users must register with StopLawnLitter to use this sign.

A more palpable version, ready for installation, is offered by an advocacy organization called 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 property.”

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.”

A trash tree made from circulars, Brooklyn, NY

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 protect against.

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.

New York Department of Sanitation sign against litter

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.

About the Author:

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.