A committee of the La Crosse Common Council has proposed a sign ordinance that would regulate various features of signs, such as size, placement, brightness, height and so on. Many residents favor the sign proposal; many businesses oppose it. I would think it would be the other way around.
Sometimes the way we define a controversy determines our response to it. If we think of an issue in terms of quality of life vs. economics, then we will think of it as residents vs. business. But in La Crosse, our economy is inextricably linked with quality of life. So the question for the Common Council is simple: What kinds of signs will enhance our local economy?
The most attention-grabbing signs are not always the best for business. A couple of weeks ago I was driving through a small town in northern Minnesota and noticed a sign on the side of a café/gas station. It read: “Eat here. Get gas and worms.” I’m sure the sign attracted lots of attention; I’m not so sure it attracted many customers. At any rate, I did not stop. I already had gas and worms.
If you are a La Crosse resident you probably don’t pay much attention to the number, variety and placement of signs because they are so familiar. It’s like the clutter in our living rooms that goes unnoticed until a visitor drops in.
Most people like their own clutter but dislike the clutter of others.
Our own clutter is comfortable; it’s the natural byproduct of activity. Sometimes, of course, it gets to be too much. When you spend more time looking for a pen than writing, it’s time to clean the desk.
When I see another person’s clutter, I immediately think: “He sure is lazy.” When I survey my own clutter, I think: “I sure am busy.”
Too many signs arranged haphazardly will make a city appear cluttered. But a city without signs is like a desk without papers: there’s nothing going on there.
Ever notice that bedroom communities have very few signs? Zzzzzz.
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Out-of-towners form a lasting impression of our city within the first 15 minutes of their visit. What they perceive is not so much particular buildings or features but rather what the German philosopher Gernot Böhme termed “atmosphere.” People get a general mood or impression of a place first; later, when they’ve become accustomed to the area, their perception tends to become more focused and selective.
Signs are the means by which we find our way around. One function of signs is to convey specific information, usually by labeling, reminding or directing. Another function of signs is to complement the built and natural environment by creating a positive atmosphere, that is, to make the city inviting and attractive, especially for visitors.
A city that conducts business strictly among residents only has to worry about the first function of signs; a city that relies on attracting outsiders, whether they be tourists, shoppers, students or conferencegoers, must be concerned also — and primarily — with the ways signs contribute to the atmosphere of the city.
There are places where signs create an intentional atmosphere-where they are meant to draw attention to themselves —places like Las Vegas or Times Square in Manhattan. But La Crosse is not such a place. I’ve never heard a tourist say, “You have such attractive signs here!”
Visitors are generally impressed with La Crosse: they love the historic downtown, they love the river, they love the bluffs. But before they see any of those things, they have to travel through the cluttered corridors that serve as entryways into the city. And even though we residents may feel perfectly comfortable with them, they don’t make a good first impression.
The sign ordinance proposal would establish guidelines to ensure that signs complement rather than detract from their natural surroundings. It is a fairly simple either-or proposition. If we care about bringing in business from visitors, we clean up our clutter. If we don’t care about that, we leave it the way it is. After all, once you live here a while, you don’t even notice it.
The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.