Fantasy signs

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on October 30, 2020


Last week, I promised more words from The 99% Invisible City, the book I’m reading about urban design and city engineering. Before I get to the words, however, I want to talk about manhole covers, traffic lights and public signage.

The book tells us that the Japanese have made manhole covers into an art form. Sewage systems involving underground networks with street-level access points were introduced to Japanese cities relatively recently, in the 1980s. A senior bureaucrat came up with the idea of making the heavy cast-iron covers aesthetically appealing, in part to help justify the high cost.

Admirable as this story is, I’ve always struggled with that word, “manhole”. Yes, of course, it’s very childish! But you see my point, don’t you? It’s one of the few words that has not yet been dis-gendered. The reason is simple, I think. The feminine version sounds frankly obscene and the neuter-version (person-hole?) sounds absurd. The book, wisely, does not draw attention to this semantic anomaly. Instead it tells us why, in case we’ve ever wondered, the covers are circular: Because, unlike square covers, round ones won’t fall through the open aperture. Added bonus? Despite their weight, they roll easily along road surfaces.

Gender issues have long bothered me in connection with pedestrian traffic lights. The concept of a standing/walking figure at the lights originated in East Germany, in 1961, designed by traffic psychologist Karl Peglau. There are many variations around the world. In Spain, I’ve seen skirt-wearing figures with children alongside them and cartoony stick-figures who start to run just before the light turns red. Nevertheless, the problem persists: When we see an angular two-legged figure, either still or walking, the subliminal suggestion is that the typical pedestrian is a man. Women or disabled citizens are considered too exceptional to feature in graphics.

This leads me to further observations about public signs and the way that gender differences are signalled. There are, of course, many clever variations on public restroom graphics. But in international public spaces such as airports, the simplest ones are interesting exactly because of what they take for granted. In the past, the typical airport graphic would identify women as wearing skirts, balanced on a single central peg — suggesting, perhaps, that we hop our way towards the toilet?

Meanwhile, some European toilets used to feature a skirt that looked like a tutu: Ballerina-only accessible. In my fantasy world, airports would feature culture-specific graphics. West Asian airports with male/female silhouettes in identical long robes: Forehead-bands for men, face-grids for women. Scottish airports with men in kilts. Indian airports with men in lungis, women in salwars. And so on!

To end, three words that were new to me. Berm: The strip between a road and sidewalk. Sharrow: Combining “share” and “arrow”, for cyclists on a shared road. And Ducks: Buildings that represent their function through their shape — like the duck-shaped building which inspired the term!

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

Published on October 30, 2020

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